Working With the Shy Child

You walk in with a big smile on your face and say "Hello there Benny, how are you today?" Unfortunately Benny doesn't respond with quite the same energy; Instead, he turns away and hides behind mum's legs.
Knowing the right way to greet a child can be tricky. Not only are you bigger and louder than they are, you are also new to them, you're a stranger! 
The purpose of the first meeting is to break the ice and begin a relationship based on trust, respect and positive energy. Some children respond to this relationship building quicker than others. For those that are a little trickier, it helps to have a few strategies up your sleeve.
  • Read: Read the child's body language when you enter the room. How do they respond? Are they happy to meet someone new, or do they shy away? Once you work that out, you're able to move forward more confidently with the following tips. 
  • Watch: Watch to see if they are watching or examining you, showing an interest, or are they hiding behind mum's legs by now? If they still seem worried, then acknowlege them and start building rapport with Mum or Dad first. Allow them to see you engaging in a friendly manner, this helps them see you in a positive light. Allow them to watch you!
  • Think: Now based on this, think of how you will respond/react accordingly. Do you need to slowly engage them while on Mum's lap? or perhaps ask them to stand up and show off their beautiful dress/shirt? Some children will warm more quickly if they are able to stay connected to a parent or show of somehting they are proud of.
Something to consider: It is better to start an upbeat conversation as soon as you enter the room, to appear less intimidating. Never push the point of trying to get a smile or a high five in the first few minutes. Breaking their personal space too early is hard to recover from.
OR: Maybe it's better to pick up a toy or ball and get the child to focus on the toy or their clothes as mentioned above. Which leads us to our next point, to shift focus. 
Use toys to create a dynamic experience and to shift the focus for the child. Often their body language will show they are intimidated when there is no barrier between you and them. 
  • Choose a toy from your shelf and hand it to the child and ask them 'can you hold that for me?', or simply place it on the floor in front of them. This will allow the child to move focus from you and to the toy - allowing them calm down, feel comfortable, and see that you are not a threat.
  • Simple things like using a kids reflex hammer that is in the shape of a giraffe or dinosaur that 'kiss' the knees also helps shift the focus from the examination you are performing to the fun toy and the 'silly kisses'. Imagine you are a child, wouldnt it be so much more fun to have kisses from a cute reflex hammer than a scary looking instrument?


Choice of language is important and can be the difference between a child co-operating or not.

Language to avoid: "Can you do this for me?" "Can I get you over here?" "Can I assess your spine?" or "Do you want to get on the table?" Although these might seem like simple questions; it is giving the child a choice, and most likely the shy child will respond with a 'no', and choose not to co-operate. It can be hard to move forward from here!


Try using:  "Ok show me how you can climb up onto the table, that's great! Now onto your tummy like a snake." Directive language reduces the option to decline participation, and makes it more fun and less threatening. You can even play a game of 'Simon Says'.


A Story from Well Kids...

An awesome little man called James was so very shy and very hard to engage. Mum had mentioned to us that he would be a challenge.

When the family arrived I said "Ok, let's go this way!", directing him to the consulation room.  James was able to engage with toys and had a fantastic time playing on the balance beam, wobble disc and foam squares while I spoke to Mum.

When it was time to talk to James and get him involved, he immediately said no. He refused to get on the table. So rather than forcing him to do something he wasn't happy doing, and causing an almighty scene (we've all been there), instead we all sat on the floor. I grabbed my spikey, squishy ball, and I rolled the ball down my arm, over mum's arm, across her legs and then onto James legs. That ball continued to roll around until a little giggle started. This was a great sign! James' stress levels were reducing and he was ready to engage and play.

It certainly pays off to take the time with the children in your practice, sometimes a slow introduction is needed, and can work wonders in building respect, trust and rapport.