The Stresses of a "Brave New World": Shyness and School Adjustment in Kindergarten

By Coplan, Robert J.; Arbeau, Kimberley A. | Journal of Research in Childhood Education, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Stresses of a "Brave New World": Shyness and School Adjustment in Kindergarten


Coplan, Robert J., Arbeau, Kimberley A., Journal of Research in Childhood Education


Abstract. Shy children are wary in the face of new social situations and perceived social evaluation. In this regard, the transition to kindergarten may represent a particularly challenging task for shy children. In this review, we explore the kindergarten classroom as a particularly stressful context for shy children. We examine the adjustment difficulties that shy children may face when starting school, including problems with peers, teachers, and academics. We also consider what teachers can do to help ease the school adjustment problems of shy children. It is our hope to continue to raise awareness in parents, educators, and mental health care professionals with regards to the challenges that shy children face at school.

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The transition to kindergarten may be difficult for many children (Duda & Minick, 2006). However, some children may have an especially problematic time with adjusting to the school atmosphere (Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta, & Cox, 2000). One such group of children may be shy children. Shy children may become overwhelmed when attending kindergarten because they are suddenly thrust into a new environment, surrounded by new peers and new adult authority figures. The purpose of this review is to highlight the social, socio-emotional, and academic difficulties that shy children may face when adjusting to kindergarten. Risk and protective factors for shy children also will be discussed. Drawing upon the extant research, we also suggest various ways that teachers may help shy children in their classrooms to "come out of their shells." Early intervention and prevention are important for extremely shy children, who appear to be at risk for more severe maladjustment in later childhood (e.g., see Rubin & Coplan, 2004, for a recent review).

What Is Shyness?

Shyness refers to wariness and anxiety in the face of social novelty and perceived social evaluation and is characterized by an approach-avoidance conflict in such situations (Coplan & Armer, 2007). Thus, although shy children may desire social interaction, this social approach motivation is simultaneously inhibited by social fear and anxiety (Coplan, Prakash, O'Neil, & Armer, 2004). For younger children, shyness manifests itself primarily as nervousness and fear when encountering new people and new situations. For older children, shyness also may be expressed as embarrassment and self-consciousness during situations when the child believes that he or she is the "center of attention" (Crozier, 2001).

There is growing evidence to suggest an underlying biological component related to shyness (Kagan, 1997; Marshall & Stevenson-Hinde, 2001). For example, as compared to their non-shy peers, extremely shy children are thought to have a lower threshold for arousal in the central nucleus of the region of the brain known as the amygdala, and demonstrate increased heart rate, higher early morning levels of salivary cortisol, and patterns of EEG responses characterized by greater right frontal activation (Fox, Henderson, Rubin, Calkins, & Schmidt, 2001; Henderson, Marshall, Fox, & Rubin, 2004; Kagan, Reznick, & Snidman, 1988; Schmidt & Tasker, 2000). The biological characteristics combine to make extremely shy children very reactive to stressful situations.

Parents also may play an influential role in their children's shyness (for a review, see Burgess, Rubin, Cheah, & Nelson, 2005). In general, an overprotective (or over-involved) parenting style has been linked to child shyness/inhibition (e.g., Rubin, Burgess, & Hastings, 2002). Parents who are overprotective of their children may discourage their children from exploring new situations and may steer their activities and behaviors (Rubin et al., 2002). In essence, parents may believe they are protecting their children from potentially stressful situations, but they may inadvertently be fostering children's dependency on parents and decreasing their sense of self-efficacy (Rubin, Stewart, & Coplan, 1995), which may lead to continued inhibited behavior (Rubin et al.

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