Q Our five-year-old girl has just started big school after four years in creche. She was very happy in creche but, curiously, always talked about her minders as her friends. In the few short weeks since starting school, we now realise that she doesn’t seem to have the skills for making friends. She is standoffish and doesn’t engage. She doesn’t seem to have the language or the tools to make friends. Consequently, her classmates are ganging up on her and being mean. How can we help her?
David replies: There are a few different things you might want to consider. Some relate to your daughter directly and some relate to her experience in school.
With regard to the school, I think you may need to arrange a meeting with her teacher as soon as possible. Aged five, your daughter will not have the capacity to be able to respond to a group of other children “ganging up” on her. That kind of group dynamic needs to be addressed, swiftly, by the teacher.
While talking with her teacher, you can also express your broader worry about your daughter’s social skills, since this is an area that many schools can help with. You will also be able to benefit from any observations the teacher gives that may give you direction in your own support of your daughter.
I am not sure if your daughter is an only child. If so, it may be that she is just far more comfortable engaging with adults, since that is who she spends most of her time with. Had any of her carers in the creche ever noticed her sociability, or identified that it may be problematic? Had you any sense that she struggled to make friends with her peers in the creche?
Friendship-building skills do sometimes need to be learned but are fairly straightforward. Coaching can be the best way to help children to develop these skills. For example, children may need some direction about making good eye contact with others, asking questions to find common areas of interest, smiling and showing interest in others.
Within the restrictions that the coronavirus has imposed on us, it may still be a good plan to arrange a playdate with one child at a time, from her school, so that your daughter has a chance to play uninterrupted with that child. You can be around and available to support the play, helping her to engage with the child who has come to visit. This, too, creates opportunities for you to coach her -perhaps encouraging her to ask her friend to play a game, or inviting her friend to choose a game for them both to play. If her teacher has made observations about her social interaction skills, these are opportunities to address them.
Having the playdate restricted to one child also increases the likelihood that your daughter will play with that friend, and reduces the likelihood of your daughter being left out by a pair or a small group of friends.
Depending on the feedback from the carers in the creche and her teacher, and if the suggestions I’ve given here don’t seem to help your daughter to settle socially, it may be worth exploring things further with a broader, more comprehensive developmental assessment.
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