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To the Parent of the Shy Kindergartener

Cartoon by Marcia Liss

Published in ChicagoNow, October 21, 2014

Since when did shyness in a 5-year-old become something requiring remediation? Apparently, in today’s kindergartens, it does. You see, shy kids generally don’t perform well on standardized tests given at the beginning of kindergarten. And that can be totally normal for a child with a shy or anxious temperament. But under our new approach to teaching young learners, being shy can be viewed as a deficit.

When I received a Facebook message from a reader about her shy daughter’s kindergarten experience, I felt angry about what happened to her child. I was also disappointed with myself that I did not elaborate on what I wrote in an earlier post, Parents Need to Advocate for Children in our Schools. In that post, I encouraged all parents to be informed advocates for their children. I cautioned them to watch out if their child is shy or anxious. “She may not perform well on standardized tests and that will impact what educators think she can/should learn, beginning in kindergarten.”

What I did not write was what to do beyond watching for the problem. Here is what the shy child’s mother asked me:

"…my shy kindergartner is being placed in tier 3. I am very concerned! I thought everything was fine with my child in school, I help out in the classroom multiple times a week. I went into parent teacher conferences and this caught me so off guard. My daughter is shy and very perfectionistic and easily shuts down.
I guess my question is, will my daughter’s shyness hurt her? I was shocked when I read [tier 3] was for students 2-3 years below grade level. Is it also normal for teachers to say everything is fine and then all of a sudden get smacked with something like that?"

Wow! I’m so sorry this mother and daughter have been put through this unnecessary pain. There is so much wrong with this picture, I’m not sure where to start. But since it’s easiest to answer her last question first, unfortunately it is common (I hate to call it normal) to get “smacked with this kind of information at a fall parent/teacher conference.” But it is also wrong.

In my role as a preschool director, my mantra with teachers was “no new information at fall conferences.” If a child is struggling, parents should know far before that time so the conference can be used to talk about what has been done to address the concern and brainstorm more ideas if the problem isn’t solved. In this case, the teacher’s failure to communicate with a parent who also actively volunteers in her child’s classroom is inexcusable. Period.

If I had to guess what happened here, my theory would be that this child bombed the kindergarten assessment tests due to her shy personality. I know from direct experience that one of my grandkids, who is a bright child with enough general knowledge to meet kindergarten standards (even the hyped-up ones expected these days), didn’t answer questions because she was very shy with strange adults. As a result, her abilities were underestimated for much of her kindergarten year.

The best thing that happened for her was an intervention by the school social worker. My daughter wished she had contacted her sooner, but once she became involved, she was able to educate the teacher to understand how to work with a shy child. By first grade, my grandchild felt more confident and more comfortable in the school environment. Amazingly, her test scores improved dramatically.

So, my first suggestion to the parent of the shy kindergartener is to talk to the teacher and advocate for her child. If that doesn’t improve the situation, she should seek additional help from a school social worker or psychologist if her school has these folks on staff. Alternatively, she should talk to the principal. If that is not enough, it’s time seek help from an outside professional who can work with the child and the school.

But please understand that there is nothing inherently wrong with being shy. To answer this mother’s larger question, I think her daughter’s shyness is definitely hurting her “academically” in kindergarten. I do not believe in using standardized tests to pigeonhole a child at the start of kindergarten without taking the time to observe and understand the whole child.

Yes, you should question your daughter’s placement in Tier 3. You know your child far better than her teacher. You know what she knows. If she doesn’t seem to be “2-3 years below grade level,” speak up. Do it respectfully, but do it. As an aside, I wonder how a child just beginning her formal education can be deemed below grade level?

I hate that kids are punished for who they are. Shy or anxious children may not perform well on standardized kindergarten tests. That’s actually normal and developmentally appropriate. It’s our current approach to educating young learners that is not normal.

My message to the mother of a shy kindergartener:

 Follow your instincts.

 You know your child best.

 You are right to question and advocate for your child.

Don’t be afraid to be *that* mom – your child deserves it.


by Laurie Levy
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