Shy preschoolers with low vocabulary skills can still fit in quite well with their peers if they possess high-level social communication skills, according to a new study published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.
Some examples of social communication skills include non-verbal communication (e.g. ability to recognize when other people are upset), inappropriate initiation (e.g. talking repetitively about something that no one is interested in) and use of context (e.g. ability to adapt and communicate based on situation and audience).
Contrary to the existing theory that shy children with low vocabulary skills struggle with peer likability, the new study shows that as long as a shy child is equipped with high functioning social skills and is able to react well across different social situations, the child’s poor vocabulary skills become inconsequential. In other words, social communication skills appear to have a buffering effect.
The study was co-authored by Dr. Cheung Hoi Shan, an assistant professor of social sciences at Yale-NUS (National University of Singapore) College, and Dr. John Elliott, an associate professor from the department of psychology. The study involved 164 Singapore preschoolers between the ages of four and six.
“Presumably, having a good expressive vocabulary, and by extension a good command of language, makes it easier for children to engage and interact with peers,” said Cheung. “However, we have found that the presence of a good vocabulary in a shy child offered no additional buffering effect for peer likeability if the child did not possess high-functioning social communication skills.”
“Conversely, shy children with poor vocabulary skills were assumed to be less likeable, but high-functioning social communication skills serve as an effective buffer against the presumed language disadvantage. The more shy a child was, the more pronounced the effect of social communication skills.”
Traditionally, parents tend to focus on increasing a child’s vocabulary as the way to improve a child’s language and communication skills. However, it appears to be social communication skills, rather than a good vocabulary, that serves as a protective function for shy children, helping to increase their peer likability.
“Social communication skills such as making eye contact, ability to adapt and communicate in different situations can be taught deliberately, instead of leaving children to observe and pick up these skills on their own. Parents of shy children may want to consider developing such skills in their children so that they can learn how to better engage with their peers, helping them to develop meaningful relationships despite their shyness,” said Cheung.
The implications of the research are particularly relevant to families who live in Singapore’s multilingual environment as the study included local bilingual or trilingual preschoolers.
Elliott noted the impact of culture and the local context on the study. “It turns out that being a shy child in Singapore is not quite the negative thing it is often thought to be in places like the United States, which have strongly individualistic cultures,” he said.
“In Singapore, it may be considered quite appropriate, and need not diminish the child’s popularity among peers, if the child has good social communication skills.”
Source: Yale-NUS College