How Can I Help My Preschooler Be More Social?

By Debra Collins, Family therapist


My 3.5-year-old daughter is talkative, energetic, imaginative and inquisitive at home. However, when she is at preschool, a neighbor's house, a dance class, etc., she is quiet and withdrawn. She prefers to sit and watch or withdraws completely from other people. What can I do to encourage her to interact with others and participate in group activities?


Developmentally a 3.5-year-old is usually less interested in isolated play and more interested in group cooperative play. Children at this age typically play in small groups of two or three. At home with the nanny or with you, your daughter can be the focus of attention. No doubt you are more attentive than her peers. Although at this age children can be curious about others, they can also be bossy and exclusionary, and she might need time to adjust.

A regular schedule at her school can give her routine and structure. Ask the teacher to introduce her to one child who has a similar temperament or who your daughter has shown a previous interest in. The teacher can play with them for a short time and then leave them to play. Three-and-a-half-year-olds in a preschool setting will typically play with one or two children at a time and then leave that group and join another.

Preschoolers' play may be lively, but it is short in duration, and they can become easily fatigued or bored. Low frustration tolerance and a short attention span can make for frequent disagreements. The teacher can help redirect the children to new activities and play partners when they are having difficulty transitioning on their own.

If your daughter talks frequently about one of her classmates, you can try an at-home playdate. This gives you an opportunity to see how she interacts and provide appropriate guidance and support when needed. It is possible that her dance class is too overwhelming, and you might want to try it again after she has gained more social skills.

Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

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.