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Ask the Experts

My Preschooler Won't Speak to Her Teacher

By Dr. Jodi Jacobson Chernoff, Developmental Psychologist


My preschooler is very chatty at home. She retells stories but won't respond to her teacher at school. What can I do to help her?


I hate to answer a question with a question, but how long has your daughter been in her particular preschool class? It's not unusual for children to have an adjustment period when they enter a new classroom during which they spend a lot of time observing and learning the lay of the land. My son was promoted to a new class mid-year (he has a February birthday) after class dynamics had already been established. His new teachers reported that while at first he seemed to join in things, a month or so later they noticed that he spent a lot of time standing apart from the group, observing. This period was then followed by another, more embarrassing (for me) period of adjustment where he acted out. My point is that it takes some children quite awhile to find their place in a new classroom. Even if your daughter entered her class a month or so ago, she may still be adjusting. Time may be all that is needed.

There are ways to help her feel more comfortable with her teacher. The first thing I'd suggest is that you talk to your child about her teacher. Maybe there is something about the teacher that she finds intimidating. For instance, is the teacher very exuberant and loud? If your daughter isn't used to such enthusiasm, she may mistake the teacher's energy as anger. Talking to her about this issue and explaining that some people just have a lot of energy may be all that is needed. Or maybe something happened that got your child and the teacher off on the wrong foot. If you can find out what it was you can probably explain it away.

Other things you can do:

  • Talk to her teacher. Her teacher is with your daughter all day and may have some insights into why she feels so reluctant to speak up in class. Keep in mind that the teacher may have several years of experience working with this age group and has probably encountered this situation in the past. Consequently, the teacher is likely to have suggestions as to what you can do to help your daughter feel more comfortable in class.
  • Make a point of praising your daughter's stories and ideas; mention that her teacher and friends would enjoy hearing them as well. Sometimes a transition like starting a new class can shake a child's confidence. A little extra praise and encouragement can go a long way in reestablishing confidence and helping a child feel comfortable talking outside the safety of home and family.
  • Ask the teacher if your daughter can periodically bring some of her favorite things to school to share with the class such as a favorite book. This will present an opportunity for your daughter to talk to her teacher and classmates about the things she loves.
  • Find out if there are any new skills or material being covered in class that your child finds challenging. Maybe your child needs some help at home mastering writing her name (or whatever it is that the class is working on). Preschool children are old enough to notice if their work isn't quite right or as accomplished as that of their classmates. Practicing skills at home in a playful atmosphere can go a long way in boosting your child's confidence.
  • Play 'school.' Children work out a lot of new things through pretend play. So if your daughter is willing to role play, encourage her to be the teacher and you play the student along with some dolls and stuffed animals. In this way, you will learn about your child's day (as she acts it out), and she will have the opportunity to work out any concerns or fears.

It's very painful to watch a sociable and engaging preschooler withdraw in a new environment. You are commended for noticing that this is happening to your child and for wanting to take action. Preschool is one of the first steps children take in establishing their place in the outside world. As parents we can help them negotiate this transition, but then we must step back and let them make their own way.

Dr. Jodi Jacobson Chernoff is a developmental psychologist working for a health and education non-profit consulting firm in Washington, DC. She works on research sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education designed to inform educators and policy makers about the needs of young children and their families. She lives in the Maryland suburbs with her husband and two young children, ages 4 and 1 year old.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"My daughter is 31/2 and has been going to 3 's preschool for 5months twice a week. She is also very chatty at home and talks non stop. At school she won't talk or participate in some activities because she is so shy. She just had her second preschool screening test and failed because she wouldn't verbalize. They would like to send her to speical Ed Classes. I feel she is a very bright girl and just needs time to adjust and take everything in to feel comfortable. It takes her a very long time to warm up to people. I feel she very much could pass the screening test if she felt comfortable. Is she a special needs kid because she is so shy and needs the extra class? "