Back-to-school is quickly approaching, and with it, thousands of preschoolers who are not really going “back” but beginning something entirely new. For many little ones, that can be a daunting task.

As the mother of a child who sat on my lap at birthday parties until she was about 6 years old, I can easily relate to parents concerned about their shy children. In reality, most of them are just cautious of new people and environments, and naturally hang onto their parent or caregiver. So when it’s time to separate and be in a classroom setting, many children are overwhelmed. Tears are shed – and not just by the child.

The first thing I would caution parents about is not to label their children “shy.” If they hear that description, they will think of themselves that way.  As adults, our job is to build, not diminish, our children’s self-esteem.

Sign Up for E-News

When an adult tries to engage, and your child does not respond, give him or her some time. If the adult is patient, and better yet – comes down to eye level – the child might very well respond, even if it takes a few minutes. Most children adjust to preschool. It may take a few days of dropping-off separation, but a good teacher and school can easily distract students with games, coloring, puzzles or a snack. 

But what if your child really is “shy”? It can be difficult for parent and child, especially when others try to engage him and he seems to dig deeper and deeper into your thigh! Bringing your child to a “mommy and me” activity can be a wonderful training tool.  Being with the same instructor, classmates and moms/nannies gives children a sense of security.  A structured class can help prepare your little one for going off on his or her own Each class has a set of rules and can train children about engaging in group behavior, sharing and taking turns. As your child becomes more comfortable in a group, the familiarity of a weekly class can bring out his or her personality.

It also helps to have a teacher who is tuned into the needs of shy children.  It’s easy to let the more verbal children answer the questions and be first at everything. It’s the teacher’s job to include the quieter child. And in rewarding that child, perhaps for sitting patiently, that characteristic is turned into a positive trait.

Praising children for even the smallest task will go a long way, too, especially for a child lacking confidence. “You got into the middle of the circle during bubble time?  Hooray for you!” “You looked me in the eye when I said good morning? Wow!” It doesn’t take much to turn a small gesture into a big accomplishment.

The good news is that you can make your child’s environment friendlier by providing routines—especially those outside the home—that give the world a more predictable cast. 

The key is to create “an environment that makes shy children feel safe and respected in order to support their development,” Erin E. O’Connor, an associate professor at New York University, said in an NYU announcement in September 2014 on research about the subject. 

“We need to reframe our understanding of these children,” added O’Connor, the lead author of the study, “Enhancing the Academic Development of Shy Children,” published in 2014 in the journal School Psychology Review.

Some children will always be ready to “jump right in.” While that is certainly easier for the parents, have faith! Your shy child will come around, and both of you will have a tremendous feeling of pride that first drop-off day without tears.

Celebrate their success at the end of the day. It is BIG DEAL to wave goodbye and walk into that classroom! By slowly reinforcing and never pushing them, children will achieve their “personal best.”  Relax, enjoy your time together and know that even the shyest of children can eventually make it off of your lap and into the world!

Lauren Greenberg is co-owner/instructor at Wompy’s World of Musical Play, a preschool music and movement program in Union, Morris and Somerset counties. She also has been the assistant director at a preschool and has a background in musical theater.