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The Social Lives of Preschoolers

The Social Lives of Preschoolers

By Amalah

Amy –

I am reaching out to you in an area in which you have particular expertise/experience (sweet, quirky boys and Montessori school).

My 3.5 yr. old is a sensitive, shy guy, who seems to blossom when he interacts with friends. However, he struggles (as did I) with actually making friends. Currently, we have him enrolled in a Montessori school. It is a well-established school with a strong reputation. However, the primary classes are big – 24 kids and 2 educators in his mixed-age room (last year, the pre-primary class had 8 kids and 2 teachers – and he LOVED it). As my son transitioned to this class this fall, he really seem to struggle (he was withdrawn, quiet, and didn’t want to talk about school). Things have definitely improved, but as far as I can tell, he hasn’t made new friends in the class. He sticks to his two closest friends from his pre-primary class, but if I ask him who he ate lunch with, he often doesn’t know their names. He has extremely strong concentration for his age, so his teachers think he’s thriving. They see a kid who focuses on his “work,” and isn’t easily distracted by other kids in the class, which are big factors in the Montessori classroom. I worry he’s not interacting at all with other kids in the classroom. His favorite part of the day seems to be on the playground, when he interacts with his favorite friend from last year’s class (who is in a different class) and one other kid from his class. The teachers categorically do not agree with my take. They report that he regularly interacts with kids of his own age and is happy in the classroom.

Outside of school, when I do see him in groups of kids (I have observed him in the classroom a few times, but he was totally focused on me), he seems a little lost. For instance, he doesn’t know how to stand up for himself (if a kid takes a toy from him, he just stares at the kid, then lets it go), or he’ll kind of goof around on the outskirts of a group, but not actually talk to anyone in the group (I saw this at a classmate’s party). One on one, he LOVES to have friends play with him. However, after an interaction with one of his closest non-school friends, who grabbed a toy from him, he told me he’d just “rather play alone.” Heartbreak.

I am considering moving him to another preschool, where the focus is “play based” with an emphasis on social and emotional growth – and the ratio is 3 educators and 14 kids. However, he would transition to a class that has been together for several years, and candidly, I’m having a hard time walking away from the Montessori school. My son doesn’t do super well with change. Mostly, based on the teachers’ reports, I’m a little worried that I’m overreacting from how he was at the beginning of the year/projecting. However, I am intrigued by a school that focuses on social stuff, which took me a long time to learn as a kid (also a little worried I’m projecting my own tough time socially in elementary and middle school on my kid!).

I feel emotionally invested in the school (love the administrators, lots of volunteer hours), and had anticipated he would go there until K or possibly even stay through elementary school.

Honestly? I think you’re expecting a bit too much from a 3.5 year old, particularly one who might naturally just be a bit on the introverted side. And I definitely think your perceptions of his social interactions are overly colored by your own experiences. Which likely wouldn’t have been made any better for you by switching preschools mid-stream, completely uprooting you from whatever small social circle you did have, and/or feeling pressured to MAKE FRIENDS MAKE FRIENDS MAKE FRIENDS!

A 3.5 year old who says he’d rather play alone after another 3.5 grabbed a toy from him isn’t “heartbreak.” That’s just normal. Also normal is his inability to remember his classmates’ names — oh my God, every last one of my children has spent the first few weeks to MONTHS of school (and NOT just preschool) completely oblivious to what other kids’ names are, and  unable to come up with the name of who they ate lunch with if asked.  Kids are just naturally a bit too self-absorbed, and other people’s names aren’t always a priority. BUT! Fun trick: Show him a class photo or yearbook.  See how many names he can identify with the help of a visual aid. You’ll probably be surprised and/or relieved.

My middle son skipped the Montessori pre-primary/toddler program and went straight to the mixed-age (3-5) primary at 3, and really kind of hung with his same-age peers for first two years. By the time he was 5 and one of the “big kids,” he took on more of an interest/nurturing role towards the new crop of 3 year olds. And while he’s my extrovert/social butterfly type (who IS easily distracted by other kids to the point it’s becoming a problem), I wouldn’t say he made real “friends” with anyone in particular right from the start. He just played with whoever, got annoyed and played by himself sometimes, and his behavior at birthday parties was all over the damn place. We did lots of playdates and sometimes they played together, other times it was more of that “parallel” play kind of thing. (Which carries over into the Montessori idea of the mixed-age classroom. Even as children work separately and don’t necessarily interact constantly, the younger children are still benefiting from the presence and behavior modeling of the older ones.)

My youngest attended the pre-primary/toddler program at that age, then like your son moved up to the mixed-age (3-5) primary class. Which was also much bigger. He ALSO stuck with his pre-primary friends (and why not? they go way back! they’re buddies!) and other 3 year olds. I’d say he really made “friends” with one little boy he knew from the toddler program, but got along and behaved appropriately with just about everyone, even if he didn’t necessarily seek them out to “play.”

And honestly at 3/4 years old, I think half the social development battle is just making sure your kid understands basics like sharing. How to take turns. Not hitting or biting. Whether or not they have BFF or a solid core of friends isn’t really a thing quite yet. No #SQUADGOALS for the preschooler set.

We had to uproot all three of our kids when we moved. New schools, all new classmates. And my youngest now attends a much smaller, play-based program, joining the final year of an established 4 year old class that’s been together since most kids were 2. And his social behavior is exactly the same. He couldn’t tell me names (until I tried the picture trick), his school reports were all about the things HE did and never really included stories about the other kids, unless it was some HIGHLY DUBIOUS story about some other little boy pushing/hurting/stealing/setting things on fire. He is very shy at birthday parties and really prefers playing with his brothers to outside peers, and has never been the sort of kid to just make random friends at the local playground.  But by all his teachers’ accounts, he is happy and interacts beautifully with other children and is very well-liked by them all. I see no reason to doubt their version.

And to honest, I really don’t see any major differences in how the “social stuff” is handled/presented at play-based vs. Montessori. It’s just as much of a priority in both, despite the different class materials and format. Be kind to each other. Share. Respect. Use your words. All good foundations for not acting like a jerk in junior high, but certainly no guarantee that every kid is going to grow up popular and confident with a million friends. I mean, hell, I had a miserable time making/keeping friends in high school but I’m like 1,000% certain it wasn’t my mom’s choice of preschool’s fault.

So look. My kids aren’t your kid, but there’s something about your email that just…I can FEEL how worried you are about this, and how much you’re hoping to save your son from the social struggles you experienced, to the point that you can’t help over-analyzing every social interaction he has. But I just want to caution you to not go overboard here. Your son had a rocky preschool transition this year (NORMAL) but is “definitely” improving. Why make him transition again, especially since the teachers and administration (whom you admit you love and respect) aren’t seeing any problems or concerns? And then have him transition AGAIN for kindergarten? It seems like a lot, given what you’ve described.

So you’re concerned about how he interacts in group settings. Again, there’s nothing Crazy Red Flag there, but sure! There’s probably some stuff you can try to make him (and yourself) feel more comfortable and confident in that area, and it doesn’t have to involve changing schools. Get emails to the class list and organize some group playdates on the weekends. Have two or three kids over to your house, or have anyone who can join meet you at a bouncy playground or library reading. Sign him up for some afterschool group activity or sport.

My oldest is on the spectrum, where social stuff is very much a concern. (Looks like he’ll be attending a summer social skills program at his school this year, and I’m really pretty jazzed about that.) But there’s just nothing here in your letter than suggests your son’s social development is abnormal or stunted in any way. He’s not coming home crying about bullies or a lack of friends. He’s more comfortable playing with one kid vs. a group. He doesn’t start fights with kids who steal toys. He’s three and a half.

He mostly sounds like a shy, sensitive kid who needs to go at his own pace, socially speaking. LET HIM. Don’t push or pressure or make him feel badly about wanting to play alone sometimes. Accept that he might just be the sort of person who prefers having just a couple good friends rather than to hang with a giant group of people. If he’s a natural introvert, it’s GOOD for him to recognize when a social interaction has gone on too long or is bothering him and he needs to politely retreat to chill for awhile. It’s GREAT that he can tune out social distractions in the classroom to focus on learning, then run outside and have a ton of fun doing his own thing on the playground. That’s the makings of a smart, confident kid right there, and that’s a HUGE part of making new friends.

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Published January 25, 2016. Last updated January 25, 2016.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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