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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 As my son transitioned to this class this fall, he really seem to struggle (he was withdrawn, quiet, and didn’t want to talk about school).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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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

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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  • been there

    January 25, 2016 at 10:51 am

    For a different take — I have a boy who sounds much like yours and we went through a really similar set of issues. We had him enrolled in a Montessori program that seemed to be great for lots of families….but he described himself as “lonely” at school and when we picked him up he was always by himself while other kids played outside, and the teachers had NO. IDEA. how to help him integrate socially though they were impressed with his “work.” We moved him to a well-regarded play-based program, where yes, the other kids had known each other for some time and that had challenges, but overall it was absolutely the right call for us. He’s still an introverted guy, but he learned so much that year about how to play with other kids and how to stand up for himself. Of course, our guy didn’t even have the two or three friends at his Montessori school that yours does, and we saw things getting worse instead of better, so your situation is different. But still, I don’t think you should be afraid to follow your gut. Play is critical for littles, and if you are at a Montessori school that is too focused on sand covered letters to get that (as ours was), and you like the other school, go for it!

  • MR

    January 25, 2016 at 11:16 am

    I agree with Amy, that you are expecting too much. My 4.5 year old regularly tells me about kids that she played with, but if I ask her their names, she has NO idea. Just the other day, she was telling us how she met the new teacher, and I asked her what the teacher’s name was – she had no idea after spending the whole day with this teacher. I just shrugged and suggested that if the teacher was back the next day, she could ask what the teacher’s name was. So, the next day, she told me excitedly that the teacher was back. I asked if she had knew the teacher’s name and she responded with a tone full of attitude that implied I was stupid and said, “Uh, YE-AH!” So I then asked what the teacher’s name was. She shrugged and said “I don’t know. I guess I didn’t hear it.” lol But this is my girl who is VERY outgoing, VERY verbal, very confident, and a whole year older than your son. This is totally normal behavior. Your son is saying he has friends, and that’s what is important. His teachers say he is thriving, and they see him in and out. Even if she seems lost now and then – he’s 3.5! All 3.5 year olds are lost now and then. Heck, all adults are lost every now and then. I know it is hard to stand back when you feel like your child is struggling, but this is really the best time for him to figure this out. Everyone struggles to figure out how to fit into groups and get along with others. He needs to do this on his own, and you can’t do it for him. As long as he isn’t being outright excluded or bullied, and isn’t miserable, leave him where he is. He has friends, he is thriving, and he is happy. That’s a LOT for a 3.5 year old. And he would probably be really confused and upset if you pulled him out, because what more are you wanting for a 3.5 year old?

  • Paige

    January 25, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    My kids both attend a Montessori school; one Kindergartener and one two-year-old. I worried a lot, when my daughter started at 2, when other children knew her name and she had no clue who they were. At three, she would talk about the fun she had with ‘that girl’ or ‘the boy with the hair’ but be unable to name anyone, or tell me who she played with at the playground, or even make a list of kids she wanted to have for her 4th birthday party.

    Sometime around 4 1/2, there was a huge change. Suddenly she knew ALL the kids names’ and could tell me what rules they broke each day. My girl has anxiety issues, and tended to gravitate toward the rule followers… but made friends easily, and plays with the kids she likes, and can tell me about them.

    I actually like the way at least our Montessori handles friendships. All the kids in the class are friends together, and they aren’t allowed to exclude other children from friendships or play. My daughter eventually blossomed into an extreme extrovert…. you’d never have guessed it from how she acted at 3.

  • A.L

    January 25, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    I want to echo what Amy said about not forcing your son to be social or making him feel bad for wanting to play alone.

    I am most definitely an introvert and have always preferred to play alone. I actually would feel very uncomfortable/anxious when I was in large groups. But my mother, who was an incredible extrovert and also had struggled as a child when it came to making/keeping friends, did not understand this. She felt I just needed to learn to make friends through practice and would constantly sign me up for activities, groups, camps, etc. And I hated it every time. She used to bother me about how I needed to invite kids over to play and she’d question me every day about who I was playing with at recess or eating lunch with. I know it came from a place of caring, but the message I got from my own mother was that I was a loser. She made me feel like I wasn’t good enough just being myself and doing what made me comfortable. (I still have a clear memory of her laughing at me and telling me how ridiculous it was that I only wanted to invite one friend over for my 9th birthday instead of having a traditional party). I still feel some resentment toward her 20-30 years later for all of it.

    All that to say… Don’t put extra pressure on your son to be what you think is the appropriate level of ‘social.’ Allow him to be who he is and play with (or not play with) exactly who he’s comfortable with now and in the future. If he (or his teacher) tells you that he is unhappy or lonely, if he shows signs of depression or acts out, or if his school work/ school behavior suffers, then you should probably worry and intervene. But an otherwise happy kid who plays alone is really not something to worry about.

  • IrishCream

    January 25, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    Another voice to say that things can really change in just a few years. When my older daughter was three, she avoided confrontation and never stood up for herself if another kid grabbed something, pushed her, etc., which really stressed me out because I’m all about raising strong! confident! women! 

    She hung out on the periphery of the classroom (play-based, not Montessori) and often told me that she played by herself all day. As in your case, teacher reports contradicted that, they all said she played very well with other kids.

    In hindsight, she didn’t have the vocabulary to capture exactly what was going on: she was technically playing by herself because it was a lot of parallel play. She might have worked on a puzzle on her own, but at a table with two other friends doing their own puzzles. She looked at books by herself, along with several other kids all looking at their own books.

    Now she’s in kindergarten, and I fear for the classmate who messes with her. She’s not the loudest kid in a big group, and will take her time getting a feel for new situations, but she is very assertive (aka bossy) with her friends. She has a large group of friends from her preschool, and has made new friends this year as well. I don’t say that to discount your worries, and every kid is different, but I did want to throw out there that it’s a fairly common concern that often resolves itself over time.

  • N

    January 25, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    Oh my goodness, my kid is SIX and he still does stuff like that sometimes. He can tell me who he had lunch with, but if I ask about who he played with on the playground? Or interacted with in class? He shrugs and tells me “I don’t know.” They have a winter program thing here in January where they go ice skating and I have dropped in during skate time and asked him about the kids he’s playing with. He still tells me “Who? I dunno,” on those occasions, while I can see with my own eyes that he has playmates! 

    Also, as much as he raves about his close buddies some days, on others he’ll come home and tell me he has no friends. 

    I think its just one of those whacky kid things. So in this case, though I know it’s hard (I had friend issues when I was a kid too) trust your child when he says he has friends (even if they’re only 2-3 close ones) and the teachers (whom you respect.)

  • K

    January 25, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    I agree with Amalah and the other commenters – now might not be the best time for a change. Our son is turning 4 in April, and is in a large-ish class of 3 and 4 year olds, and he’s been all over the place with respect to remembering other kids’ names and playing “with” other kids, that type of thing. He also seems to go from introverted (“momma, is this a stay home day? Can we stay home and be with just us?”) to extrovert “momma, we friends coming over? can we have friends to play with today?”) and everything in between. One trick we learned when talking about school: we ask things like “who did you spend time with today” instead of “who did you play with” (because our son is so literal that unless he was actively engaged with another kid, he doesn’t seem to remember that sitting side by side and reading also counts as “playing” to us), and “what was your favorite part of the day?”, “what was something funny that happened”, “who did you help today”. Those questions seem to help him to reframe his day in a way that helps him to talk about it, and often we get a lot more insight into what his day looked like. We also hear a lot more about his friends in that way. And, for what it’s worth, our son is confident and friendly, and still just stares at kids when they take his toy or something similar. I think (hope) it’s because we have actually done a good job of teaching him that sometimes it’s not a big deal to share and find something else to do (especially in a room full of other activities/toys). The fact that he doesn’t lose his mind in that situation is actually a win! And don’t worry, as he gets older, I bet you he stands up for himself just fine. Deep breaths momma, he’s still so young, and to me it sounds like he’s exactly where he should be socially.

  • Stephanie

    January 25, 2016 at 6:15 pm

    For what it’s worth, my teenagers sometimes can’t tell me the names of the kids they ate lunch with! (I’m really only half-joking, here, and I’m mostly referring to our foreign exchange student, but, still–kids are just kind of like that, sometimes.)
    But, to be perfectly serious, I’m currently a para in a special-ed preschool classroom, and none of what you’re describing sounds like anything to worry about.  Your son sounds like a pretty typical 3.5 year old.  If he’s telling you that he’s having fun and the teachers say that he’s doing fine socially, I’d listen to them.  They do see him in the school setting day in and day out, after all, and have a lot more info to base their opinions on, if that makes sense.  
    And, as a fellow introvert, I have to echo what others have said. If he’s got one or two good friends and is happy with that, then that’s all that matters.  Pushing him to make more friends really could cause more anxiety.  That being said, signing him up for maybe one activity that sounds fun could be a good thing, too, just to expand his horizons, just a little bit. 

  • Grainne

    January 25, 2016 at 6:18 pm

    My son is also 3.5, but sounds like he’s on the opposite end of the social spectrum. He’s a social butterfly, makes “friends” easily, and will walk up to strange kids, say “hi” and ask if they want to play. If you ask him who his best friend is, he’ll tell you something different every time. I think he just lists off who he played with the most at daycare that day. For a long time, the woman who runs his daycare said one kid was his best friend and they played together every single day. But when when we went on a playdate with that same kid in a public place, my son literally followed around another kid who he confused with his best buddy. And for months afterwards he called any kid who had the same hair color his buddy’s name. I think at this age they don’t have best friends in the way older kids do. Playing well with other kids, developing social skills, etc. is important, but they aren’t making the intense, lasting connections that older kids do at this age.

  • Jennifer B

    January 26, 2016 at 1:09 am

    On the one hand, yes he’s just 3.5. On the other hand, I can look back now (my daughter is 14.5), and I can see things that I noticed in preschool that I wish I had done more about sooner.

    My kid had a tendency to not play with any specific group, and often would flit from group to group as her interests suited her. She’s gifted, probably on the higher end, and was reading at age 4 in preschool.

    She never really made good friends in preschool or elementary school. I wish we had focused on getting her the social skills needed and searched out groups to find her “tribe” much sooner. 1.5 years ago at a summer camp when we picked her up she cried, saying that she felt closer to the kids she met at that camp than she did with any kid she knew at home (and that camp was 250 miles away). So, be aware, notice the patterns and act on this sooner rather than later if this still seems to be an issue in the future.

  • Heather

    January 27, 2016 at 9:10 am

    Be easy on yourself OP. You could have been describing my little guy at 3.5. He’s now 4.5 and is just beginning to make the close friends that I hoped he would have – because he’s just now able to really communicate in a complex social way. The other thing that I have to realize is that sometimes he likes to be alone and on the periphery. He will tell me “I just like to be by myself.” 

  • vanessa

    January 28, 2016 at 7:03 am

    This is why Montessori is a bad fit for a whole lot of kids. Definitely go play-based. 

  • Annie

    February 3, 2016 at 6:30 pm

    Hi! I’m the mom of an eight year old and almost five year old. Both my kids did Montessori, and it was a great fit for each of them. My eight year old son is more introverted and he has Asperger’s, and my daughter doesn’t have a spectrum disorder and is very social, loud, and in the middle of the action. They both did a lot of what you described when they transitioned to a primary program with older kids in the class. After time, they each blossomed and did beautifully. And now at older ages, they each still have a few good friends.

    The difference with my son was that he didn’t grow into new skills. He was very verbal at five, and could play chasing games, but didn’t know how to play more advanced games or collaborate with peers to create a new kind of play. He was a great leader in classroom activities, but didn’t know how to follow a peer’s lead. He had trouble interpreting body language and facial expressions from others, and he didn’t develop the ability to figure out what others were thinking about or how they were feeling. These kinds of developmental quirks led us to an evaluation for a spectrum disorder. When I brought it up with our pediatrician, she poo-poohed my concerns. The specialists that we had evaluate my son saw things differently. All that to say, if you continue to have concerns as time goes by or your kid seems “stuck” in younger-kid behavior it could be helpful to have a specialist take a look at him. Currently, it sounds like he’s doing well. And I agree that limiting the number of school transitions is probably a good move for a kid who can be introverted and doesn’t like change.

  • Kim

    February 12, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Both my kids – the very socially outgoing one and the very introverted one- do much better in small group settings.  I’m wondering what plans are for next year?  If he’s going into a a formal pre-K program, that’s mother big class, then I would be more inclined to put him in a smaller play-based group now, just to reinforce those skills.  If he’s got another year of preschool, I would think about changing things next year.  It wouldn’t hurt to mix things up a bit for him, and if it does help a bit, so much the better.