My daughter is four, and has attended an excellent preschool for almost a year now. For the most part, we love the school, and she seems to like it too. However, she is a dreamy little girl who would rather play on her own than in a big group of children. She’s an only child, and I’m sure it’s in part because of that — but both my husband and I are fairly self-sufficient adults. We love to throw parties, and she likes them too, but we’re just as happy curled up on the couch with a book.
Her school requested in the fall that my daughter start working with a therapist an hour a week on improving her social skills. Now they’re asking us to have her work with an outside one as well. I’m uneasy. How much of this is just her temperament? She is quite happy, and is greeted enthusiastically by the other children when we drop her off. She has regular play dates with other children outside school — and she does just fine. I’m uncertain why the school feels something is wrong, and concerned that my daughter will start to think that her creativity and ability to play on her own are bad. At the same time, I’m worried that if something IS wrong, we need to address it quickly. I want to switch schools, but my husband is very much against it. — Mom of a dreamy daughter
Dear Dreamy Mom,
They grow up so fast. One minute the expected preschool dynamic is full-on chaos and/or peaceful parallel play. The next minute, your kid‘s getting scolded for “not playing well with others.” Whether this is a symptom of our overly micromanaging culture or an insight that might lead to beneficial early intervention, well, that’s open to interpretation. In today’s excellent preschools, socialization is a core part of the curriculum. The result is that natural ‘team players’ are praised (or at least left alone) and everyone else is worried over to some extent. Some kids fight, some dance around, some, like your truly lovely-sounding daughter, curl up and read a book. (It’s amazing how even pleasant anti-social behavior still sends up the flags.) We’ve heard lots of similar complaints from other parents. And we’ve been known to join in the rants against the corporate Pre-K machine churning out perky little people-pleasers; their quirks and charms ironed right out of them. It seems like so many of the traits that were written off as individuality when we were kids — sensitivity, independence, assertiveness, lack of athleticism, and yes, dreaminess — are now ascribed to some disorder or other.
With the emphasis (and good research) on the positive effects of early intervention on many social, neurological and behavioral problems, it’s understandable that schools are watching closer than they used to. When parents are paying high sums to have their kids closely observed, schools feel a responsibility to keep their eyes open. Many schools tend to cast a pretty wide net at this age. There may be a tendency towards oversensitivity in hopes of preventing any kids from “falling through the cracks.” For many of us who grew up in earlier eras, it’s hard to imagine why it would be necessary to tweak a perfectly well-behaved four year-old’s social skills. Necessary it’s not, but it could be helpful.
It’s not really clear what the school’s concern is, especially since she’s already getting some social support. You may also want to delve a bit more to try to understand. Express your concern that this is just a personality thing and ask them to be clear about any possible consequences you may not be aware of. Though it’s often said that parents have a good sense of when something is and isn’t a problem for their kids, some issues show up more (or sooner) in peer groups than in a home or play date situation. You might ask whether you could observe her in class to get a better idea of what they’re worried about. The concern with social skills may not be so much about how your daughter will do on her own, but the cumulative effect of this different way of relating on her relationships with other kids, and her role in the group dynamic. They may have some insight into the seeds of social problems that aren’t obvious to untrained eyes at this point.
There’s a good chance that your daughter’s behavior is a matter of temperament. And it’s totally reasonable to ignore what the school says, and let your daughter continue marching to her own beat, or perhaps wait and see what happens next year. Sometimes classroom chemistry can really make a difference. And of course, big changes can happen developmentally as well. You can ask her current therapist for his or her opinion and also ask if there’s anything specific you guys can do with your daughter, aside from seeking outside help. You can also talk to other parents in your child’s class if you feel comfortable. A little reconnaissance may give you some perspective or insight into how this particular school/class/teacher operates. We’d caution you, though, to be careful about how you choose to frame the situation. It can be tricky to figure out how much to reveal and to avoid pointing blame or spouting opinions that might turn out to feel unwise later on. Though your impulse to look for a more supportive environment is understandable, your husband has a point. Switching schools would probably be rash, at least before you get more details. Once you know more, you can make a better assessment of whether a switch would be beneficial, or worth the effort and upheaval.
If you do find that the worry continues, you may want to think more about strategies — whether or not you decide to follow the school’s recommendations. Pediatricians often use concern from multiple sources over periods of time as a guideline for recommending further investigation into behavioral or social issues.