How we support 'slow-to-warm up' children
Each child comes into the world with a unique temperament, or personal way of engaging with their surroundings. One key aspect of this temperament is how a child reacts to new experiences and people they haven’t met before. While some children are naturally at ease and dive straight into unfamiliar settings, others are more reserved and require additional time and support from attentive adults to feel secure in new situations.
We’ve all encountered them, the little ones who hang back a bit, observing the world from a safe distance before stepping in. Perhaps they clam up and don’t say a word, even when they’re encouraged to say hi. Whether it’s at a family gathering, coming to Little Scholars for the day, a playdate, or even in their own home, these children often take their time to warm up to both familiar faces and new acquaintances. While it’s easy to label them as ‘shy,’ ‘reserved,’ or even ‘standoffish,’ these terms can be misleading and, at times, unfairly stigmatising. The implication with terms like these often is that there’s something wrong with the child or some problem they need to outgrow.
Understanding the nuances of a slow-to-warm-up temperament is crucial, not just for parents but for anyone who interacts with children. These children aren’t necessarily shy or unsociable; rather, they have their own unique way of engaging with the world around them. And contrary to some misconceptions, their reserved nature isn’t a sign of rudeness or obnoxiousness. These children simply need time to observe a situation, time to figure out how things work, space to decide whether they feel comfortable with someone, and respect for their right to move at their own speed. In fact, if they feel pressured to change, then they can turn into shy people, as shyness often is based in a fear of being judged negatively.
Research tells us the brain grows tells us that children learn best when they feel safe and relaxed. Feeling safe helps their brains become more flexible, making it easier for them to learn new things. On the other hand, stress and worry can make learning more difficult. So it’s important to create safe and comfortable spaces where children can focus on learning. For all the reasons above, children who warm up to others gradually are precisely those who could benefit the most from a little extra understanding and support from parents, caregivers, and other trusted adults in their lives.
One American study evaluated the usefulness of slow-to-warm-up temperament as conceptualised by Thomas and Chess in predicting child and maternal parenting behaviors, with a particular focus on its conceptual link to child inhibition. The study included 1,072 mothers and their children in the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. The study found that slow-to-warm-up temperament in infancy did predict later inhibition. Specifically, ‘shy’ toddlers whose mothers are overprotective or overly forceful demonstrated more inhibition in childhood than shy toddlers whose mothers do not demonstrate such parenting styles. The study also found that maternal sensitive and stimulating/supportive parenting was associated with less shyness in early childhood for children who were slow-to-warm-up in infancy.
It also found slow-to-warm-up infants with high quality interactions with their mothers may be less likely than slow-to-warm-up infants with low quality interactions with their mothers to demonstrate inhibition in early childhood. So while it may be hard for parents who are not slow-to-warm up themselves to understand their child’s feelings, it’s important for them to understand what their child needs to feel comfortable. The style of parenting used with a slow-to-warm up child can affect them long into childhood and beyond.
So, how can we create an environment that not only respects their natural disposition but also empowers them to overcome feelings of anxiety or discomfort? How can we help them muster the courage to engage more freely with others, enriching their social experiences and emotional development?
Preparing for situations with your child
Children who are slow to warm up often feel more at ease when they know what’s coming. This could be anything from going to a friend’s birthday party to a visit to the dentist. You can help them get ready by:
- Showing them photos or short clips of where you’re going or what you’ll be doing
- Use pretend play to practice the activity at home before you go
- If you can, visit the place before the actual event. That’s why Little Scholars playdates once you enrol can help your child begin to feel more comfortable with new surroundings
- Go over the day’s plan so they know what activities are lined up and what’s expected of them. Even simple things, like changing into sport clothes before sport, or what happens at the dentist, should be mentioned
- Consider reading books or watching videos that show similar experiences
- Practice beforehand with role play. This helps to bring your child to that mindset before they are in that actual place, so that when the time comes, they’ve had a dress rehearsal.
Before going into a situation you suspect might be hard for your child to warm up, prepare them for what they can do when they get there by saying something like, ‘when we walk in, it may feel like a lot of people are there, when everyone comes to say hi, if you’re not ready, you can smile and wave.’
When in the moment where your child is still assessing the situation they’re in, you could say to your child something like, ‘You don’t have to answer, but if you want to, here’s a game. If you’re having a good time at this party, touch your nose, if you’re not, stomp your feet!” This helps warm the child up without feeling like they have to speak and help them get past the feeling of ‘freezing up’ and you might even get a smile out of them.
The strengths of the slow-to-warm-up child
Being someone who is a little more gradual in building comfort around others is not a negative trait, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. Children who are slow to warm up possess a unique set of strengths that make them truly special. Not only are they keen observers, picking up on nuances that might escape others, but they also demonstrate exceptional impulse control, carefully considering their actions before taking the plunge.
While they may have a selective circle of friends, their loyalty to those with whom they connect is unwavering. Their empathetic nature allows them to tune into the feelings of others, making them excellent listeners and compassionate companions.
Once they find their comfort zone, these children are every bit as joyful and adventurous as their peers. Additionally, their cautious approach often makes them excellent problem-solvers, as they take the time to assess situations thoroughly. Their introspective nature also lends itself to deep thinking, allowing them to engage meaningfully in activities and conversations.
There’s an opportunity there to lift up the cautious child as you observe them in these situations. Maybe by telling them you admire how they read the room before they move forward, or highlighting when they took a big step of approaching someone first, then asking them how they felt afterward. This shows your child you’re always in their corner, and helps them build up those feelings of safety and confidence.
Building relationships at Little Scholars
Kristen, a lead educator in the early learner studio at Little Scholars Pacific Pines, says that building relationships through play is key, especially when a child starts with us for the first time.
“Play is the language of children,” Kristen says. “We are always on the child’s level offering support and companionship without expecting them to return or respond immediately. Through observations and learning stories we share how we celebrate even the smallest achievements such as a child engaging in a group activity alongside peers.”
Kristen says family involvement is really important, as our families know our little scholars best.
“We remember that every child is unique, and the key to helping slow-to-warm-up children is individualised attention and care. We work closely with families to bring children’s interests and special talents from home into their Little Scholars environment.”
Raylene, lead educator at our Yatala campus, agrees.
“One of the most useful, however overlooked strategies that I’ve used in my time as an educator is to build strong relationships with parents. When children see their parents positively engaging with a person, they begin to see that person as someone they too can connect with. Having a good relationship with families also provides the platform to initiate open, meaningful and welcomed communications whether it’s light social banter or a need to develop collaborative care strategies for their child.”
Ray also says it’s important for educators, parents and other people who interact with children to attune themselves to the child’s temperament.
“As educators it’s crucial to ensure that we are attuning to the children in our care at every stage of their life so they feel recognised and supported to become the capable little humans they were born to be at a pace that is natural for them.
“We can do this by being intentionally present in our interactions, which in turn gives us the opportunity to identify their emotional cues whether it’s from their words, behaviours or body language. We can continue developing this safe space for children and support them to feel seen, heard, understood and validated by ensuring we are genuinely responsive; actively listening to them and addressing their need in a way that allows them to feel content. It’s about not only recognising, but facilitating for each child as the individuals they are to build a trusting relationship and safe environment.”
Understanding and supporting children with a slow-to-warm-up temperament is a collective effort that involves parents, caregivers, and educators. At Little Scholars, we’re committed to creating an environment that respects and nurtures each child’s unique way of engaging with the world. By taking the time to understand these special little ones, we can help them flourish, turning their cautious observations into confident explorations. Rather than treat your child’s temperament as something that should be excused or apologised for, we should celebrate the strengths of these thoughtful, empathetic, and deeply introspective children, and offer them the understanding and support they deserve. After all, they might just be the careful thinkers, loyal friends, and compassionate leaders of tomorrow.