Pre-pandemic, my son had often been slow to warm to new situations but after a few minutes generally became the friendly, loving kid we know him to be. But months at home seem to have turned his shyness into an overwhelming struggle.
I’m not alone in being concerned about how my kid will readjust to interacting with others as school starts up again, even if that interaction is solely online for the time being. Parents are fretting that their children are regressing, not just in academics but in social skills.
“Socializing is a muscle,” said Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” Like so many of our muscles during lockdown, that one has been left to atrophy; for introverted and shy children in particular, exercising it regularly is critical.
The best support for shy kids is routine exposure “to social situations that are ever-so-mildly uncomfortable but that they can handle,” Cain told me. But without the daily drumbeat of school, camp, play dates or even playgrounds, “it’s going to feel like they’re starting from scratch when they come back.”
As school starts up again in whatever form, how can we support kids’ social development — particularly for those who were already struggling? Here are some suggestions from experts.
Understand the ‘why’ behind the behavior. Garica Sanford is a child psychologist at the Momentous Institute, a nonprofit that provides social-emotional health services to families in Dallas. She said I need to consider whether my child is simply introverted — meaning he has a preference for, and derives energy from, being alone or with a small number of people — or whether he’s experiencing social anxiety, which is driven by fear or worry.
The distinction is important because some introverted kids are thriving under lockdown, and we might not want to rush them back into large groups of same-age students (even if that is an option and social distancing and other precautions are in place). That model of schooling was created in 19th-century Europe as an efficient way for teachers to deliver knowledge but is not necessarily the most effective way for all kids to learn.
Caroline Goodrich, 15, is a rising sophomore at Redwood High School in Marin County, Calif. She loved learning from home this spring because she found all the “social stuff that comes with high school” draining. “Academics was suddenly structured in a way that was more beneficial to me and my mental health,” she said. “I can attend school, which can be very stressful, from a place where I know I can be calm.” She is happy that her school will be starting online this fall but anticipates that it will be difficult to build relationships with new teachers through a screen.
For quiet kids like Goodrich, we should honor their preferences, “while also preparing them for a world that feels really extroverted in nature,” as Sanford put it, by continuing to put them in (safe) group situations.
However, for kids with anxiety, this can make things worse. “Sometimes as parents, we want to just go to the behavior and think that if we just increase exposure, everything else will fall into place,” Sanford said.
That’s why it’s so important to understand the reasons for their behavior. Are they worried about the coronavirus? Or that their classmates won’t like them, or they won’t be good at soccer anymore? Have the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death heightened their awareness of racism and made the world feel less safe?
If we help kids articulate their concerns, we can help address them — and not try to find a solution for the wrong problem. “Parents might assume that kids are worried about covid,” Sanford said, “and really what they're most worried about is not going outside for recess.”
Be conscious of our biases and concerns. Kris Laroche has been educating children and coaching parents for 30 years (and taught my kids at Green School Bali in 2018-2019). She called me out for complaining to her about being “stuck at home,” given that some people are enjoying the solitude. “The subtlest things in our language communicate very clearly whether something is good or bad,” she said, suggesting that we can create anxiety for kids around situations that they might otherwise experience as neutral or even positive.
Not that we should bury concerns or engage in false cheerleading. “What’s the way in which there’s still validation for both the parent and the child about the worry?” Sanford asked. “Can we tolerate their fears in a way where we’re not dismissing them, but we’re hearing them?”
Give developmentally-appropriate choices. Sanford said that giving kids control can lessen their anxiety. When her 4-year-old went back to day care, she let him pick out mismatched socks and shoes.
Liz Castro of Lorton, Va., let her 14-year-old son, Vicente, choose between the hybrid or fully remote options that Fairfax County Public Schools were at one point planning to offer. He opted for hybrid, though the district later decided to go fully remote for the start of the school year. Castro was surprised by her son’s choice, since she said both Vicente and his brother “keep their circles small,” but Vicente knew he “needed some social interaction.”
Create safe spaces. In preparing to reopen, the Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School in New York City created “cool-down spaces” in their classrooms, with protective shields “if you need to take off your mask and just breathe deeply and reset,” co-founder Eric Tucker said. (The school has given families the choice between five days a week in-person, with kids attending mornings or afternoons only to limit the number of students in the building at one time, and a fully remote model.)
If they are learning online, some students might want to keep their camera off during video conferences or use the chat function instead of speaking; parents should make sure teachers understand their kids’ preferences and accommodate them to the extent possible. Virtual breakout rooms can be helpful, said Cain, as long as teachers are mindful about pairings and clear about participants’ responsibilities.
If quiet kids are overwhelmed by the prospect of school without reprieve as the lines between home and learning blur, parents will need to be even more deliberate about meeting their needs for downtime. Some ways to do that include letting young children build forts and giving older students time and space to unwind.
Provide ongoing 1:1 connections. Every student at the Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School has a “success coach” with whom they meet one-on-one on a regular basis. “Because a student who’s extroverted might well say, ‘My mom is really struggling because her boss is being a jerk at work and her sister died,’” Tucker told me. But a quiet student is far less likely to share that sort of information if there’s no one responsible for seeking it.
If kids aren’t getting one-on-one attention from an adult in school, parents might consider recruiting an older cousin, neighbor or friend to be an informal success coach.
Take refuge in the uncertainty. While the many unknowns of the fall can inspire worst-case scenario planning, they are, well, unknown. “You don’t know what the future will hold, and there can be a bit of refuge in that uncertainty,” Laroche said. Instead of projecting my son’s soccer camp experience onto what might happen when school reopens, I need to remember that “a lot of things could be different,” Laroche said. “Your child has a really good friend in the class that they’re excited to see, or it could just be hard and you’ll get through it.”
Indeed, until there is a vaccine that is effectively disseminated, we will continue to experience an unpredictable roller coaster of emotions. For kids who struggle with socialization, it is particularly important that parents maintain a strong connection with them so they feel secure enough to face the world, whatever it may bring.
“We have to be in constant dialogue,” Sanford said. “This can’t be a one and done.”
Christine Bader is the author of “The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil” and co-founder of The Life I Want, a storytelling project with Eva Dienel reimagining work. Find her on Twitter @christinebader.