It’s natural to be nervous in new situations, even as adults we sometimes get nervous doing new things, so it’s not surprising that little ones can be nervous or shy. Starting at nursery is a big step for most children, and it’s important to note that shyness is natural. After all, it’s their first time away from home for a large part of the day. Often starting nursery is the first time children will have been around a larger number of other children for an extended period of time.

So what do you do when your child is shy at nursery? We’re going to give you our favourite tips and suggestions to help your child acclimatise to nursery and to encourage them to ‘come out of their shell’; being that little person you know they’re capable of being:

    • Immerse them into nursery life slowly
    • Include them in everyday interactions
    • Emphasise the importance of sharing
    • Deal with fears using positive reinforcement
    • Balance numbers – looking at quieter nurseries
    • Go to a few settling in sessions
    • Make the staff aware of your child’s shyness
    • Set a timeline and expectations
    • Address your own anxieties
    • Take reminders of home
    • Make dressing simple
    • Boost everyone’s social circles by making friends with other parents
  • It starts at home

Overcoming shyness at nursery starts at home. Behavioural acquisition occurs from 9 months of age, and you are your child’s first teacher – they watch you and learn from you. When you’re out and about with your little one, and even when you’re at home, the way you interact with others will be your child’s first point of reference. Be calm, be kind, be understanding and positive.

  • Slow immersion

Before entering your child into an atmosphere where the children outnumber the parents, try events where the balance of adults and children are equal; for example, parent and toddler music groups, or swimming lessons or anything else where children are interacting, but where there’s a large number of adults to keep an eye on everyone.

  • Everyday interactions

Children first learn by watching, but then it is doing that reinforces learning: Practise makes perfect, right? W0ith that logic in mind, find ways to involve your child in safe, everyday social interactions with strangers. For example, if you’re out shopping, have your little one hand over the money to the cashier, receive the change and say thank you. They don’t have to be big actions, it all adds up.

  • Emphasise sharing

Again, this can happen before they start nursery. It can be as simple as encouraging your little one to share their toys with you, or with other family and friends that visit you. Sharing is vital in a successful social life no matter how old you are; it will lead into their academic and professional life later on. Additionally, resources are communal and limited at nursery so it won’t always be possible for every child to have the toy they want all the time; taking turns and sharing is unavoidable. Introducing this concept when at home helps reduce some of the anxiety in new situations, making the transition to nursery life that much easier.

  • Dealing with fears

Now you’ve got started on these initial steps, make sure that you’re praising your child for the leaps and bounds that they’re making! Positive reinforcement occurs both when you actively praise their efforts and with the smiles and cuddles that you give when your little one is nervous. No matter what you think, their concerns are real in their minds, so listen to them and don’t dismiss their fears. If they ask questions about going to nursery or about making friends, do your best to allay their fears and tell them about your own positive experiences: This could be harking all the way back to your own days in nursery or pre-school, or more modern memories like how you met your friends that you see every day, and how you got over your nerves when going for a job interview or starting a new job. For outside examples there are a number of children’s books available about starting nursery for the first time.

  • Balancing numbers

Finding the right nursery can take time. Make sure you’re happy with all of the arrangements before enrolling your little one – this goes back to the fact that your son or daughter will learn from your reactions, so it’s important that you’re happy with the nursery too. Whilst all nurseries should have a background hum of busy toddlers and young children, some nurseries are louder than others. Here, a quieter nursery may be more suitable for a child who is particularly shy.

  • Introduce the setting

You should also take a look at what the staff to children ratio is. Dependent upon the age of the child this can vary from 1:3 up to 1:13. Having a lower staff to children ratio will ensure that more time is spent watching your little one, and will ensure that there are more authority figures for your child to look to when they’re unsure of what to do. Before enrolling your child, take them on a visit to the nursery and introduce them to the staff; this means that even on their first day they’ll have familiar faces to look for.

  • Make the staff aware

Nursery staff are understanding people, with vested interests in seeing your child happy and well settled; if you’re worried about your son or daughter being nervous – tell the staff! They will be able to offer more suggestions of things to try,  be able to introduce your child to children in similar situations and also support your child with making new friendships. If there are any underlying events at home that may affect your child’s behaviour, it’s important to tell staff about these as well, so it’s not unexpected and they can react appropriately.

  • Setting a timeline and expectations

Scary though it may seem to your little one, you will come back to pick them up in just a few hours. To combat fears, tie your return to happening after an activity has finished. Check with staff what the nursery’s daily routine is, and say things like, “I’ll pick you up when everyone has finished painting/reading/playing outside this afternoon.” This gives your child an anchor point to tie your return to, and a fun activity to take part in beforehand to distract them. You may find that after the first few days your child is immersed in an activity when you arrive. Be sure to encourage them to finish it where possible, so they have a positive end point to the day to associate with before returning the next day.

  • Dealing with your own anxieties and their first day jitters

It’s probable that you’re just as nervous about your little one going to nursery as they are. You are trusting a relative stranger with their care, of course it’s nerve racking. The key thing here is not to express your fears to your son or daughter, because it will only exacerbate their concerns! By being calm and strong, your child will be reassured.

  • Reminders of home

At first, it’s okay to give your child a little something to remind them of home: This may be taking a favourite teddy in with them, or packing a favourite cup for drinks that they have used at home previously. Over time, you should be able to reduce the frequency of using these comforters, as your daughter or son becomes more comfortable. They will form attachments to people and things in the nursery: This is entirely natural and will signal that they consider the nursery a safe and welcoming space that they enjoy coming to.

  • Make dressing simple

Throughout their time at nursery, your children will become more independent, but there are things you can do to help facilitate this. Velcro is a minor miracle, making it easier for young kids to dress themselves, such as when taking their shoes on and off. Encouraging independence will ease the transition into nursery because it proves to your daughter or son that they are capable of doing things for themselves, which in turn will help deal with anxieties in all areas.

  • Boost everyone’s social circles

Making friends at nursery is one of the most common fears that children express, and there are things you can do to help with this. Introduce yourself and your child to the other parents and set up outside play dates with other children at weekends. This will give your little one the chance to interact with other children on a quieter basis and also the opportunity to form bonds outside of the nursery space. Additionally, it will give you the chance to talk with other parents and discuss your relative experiences. Who knows, they may be able to offer more insight and advice than any outsider.

Much as we can try to allay your fears, the likelihood is that it’s going to be hard for everyone at first. Just remember that it will get better, and most of all remember that shyness is natural, it’s just a part of your child’s character and development.