In all its ankle-biting bedlam, the first day of any kindergarten class is an ideal laboratory for studying human nature.
Presented with an alien room, a stand-in parent and 20 unfamiliar cohorts, five-year-olds react with a veritable tickle-trunk of emotions, with some "clinging to parents' knees and others blowing off their parents with a quick 'Okay, Mom, bye-eeeee,' " says Kelly Williamson, a primary school teacher in Calgary. "It's pretty chaotic."
While the majority of children soon overcome any initial fear of their new play-pals, between 10 and 15 per cent never do.
These are the preschoolers hampered by what researchers call extreme shyness, a condition to which psychologists believe some children may even be genetically predisposed.
When they're plunked into a strange setting, their hearts pound, palms sweat and minds race to such a degree that normal social interaction is beyond them - possibly for life.
"For these kids, the first day of kindergarten is an absolute nightmare scenario," says Robert Coplan, a psychology professor at Carleton University and a leading authority on childhood shyness.
It's not just a problem in kindergarten. Recent studies have shown that shyness as a child can lead to depression, loneliness, low self-esteem and a host of other social problems as an adult.
As a new round of children enters a classroom for the first time this week, Canadian researchers are heading studies into how parents and teachers can prevent bashful kids from sprouting into troubled grown-ups.
"These shy kids might not be showing it yet, but they are at risk," says Dr. Coplan, who has been studying a group of children who are now entering Grade 3 since they started kindergarten, and plans to study them through to adulthood. "Why not get in and do something before they go bad?"
The kids Dr. Coplan studies are easy to spot. They are the ones who hover on the fringes of sandboxes and playrooms biting their nails and fidgeting their hair. Normal social interaction scares them, triggering a fight-or-flight response. They are torn by a fear of meeting new people and a simultaneous desire to make friends. Their skittishness is often interpreted as rudeness by playmates, parents and teachers, only serving to alienate them further.
Dr. Coplan first took note of shy kids when he was acting as director of a summer camp in Montreal. When counsellors dragged grade-school rabble-rousers before him for having poor discipline, he noticed a curious pattern. Most were guilty of predictable offences: hitting, biting, refusing to sit still. But for every nine or 10 rambunctious ne'er-do-wells, there was always one child singled out for the opposite reason.
"The councillors would complain that a particular kid wouldn't play or talk to anybody," said Dr. Coplan. "I could tell that these kids were pretty scared. They showed their fear by not showing anything, by closing down. I wanted to know, 'Who are these kids and why are they behaving this way?' "
Until the late seventies, social scientists paid little attention to the internal struggles of timid tots. Research had shown that shyness was not an indicator of serious future disorders such as schizophrenia. "Shy kids have been pretty much ignored in favour of their more outgoing, bouncing-off-the-wall counterparts," says Dr. Coplan.
Developmental psychologists instead turned their attentions to "externalizing" disorders - social maladies with a noticeable behavioural component such as bullying, hyperactivity or aggression.
Shy children only gained notice when Jerome Kagan, one of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th century, began looking at the roots of shyness.
What he posited shattered previous assumptions about child psychology.
Dr. Kagan, a Harvard professor, found that shyness is more a product of nature than nurture. Among infants he studied, 15 per cent showed a few striking biological similarities: elevated heart rate, sweaty palms and higher than normal levels of cortisol - the chemical trigger for fight-or-flight responses.
"When they come into the world, they are simply wired differently," says Louis Schmidt, psychology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton and co-editor of a book on shyness and social phobia. "Their system is metaphorically revved up before the day has begun."
For 15 years, Dr. Schmidt has probed the biological calling cards of shyness that Dr. Kagan first identified nearly 30 years ago. He's discovered that the excess cortisol and elevated heart rate are accompanied by a flurry of activity in the right frontal cortex, part of the brain thought to be responsible for fear and stress.
"When you challenge these children, they show even more activity on the right side," says Dr. Schmidt. "We think it reflects an inability to regulate fear and stress."
Shy kids will never outgrow their unrelenting anxiety in social situations, but Dr. Coplan can show them how to cope with it.
For three years, he's been conducting interventions with hundreds of timid children throughout the Ottawa area. During the interventions, six to eight children receive a 15-minute lesson on some aspect of socializing. Dr. Coplan and other researchers hope that teaching them how to cope with shyness will prevent children from developing social phobias and depression in adulthood.
One of the first lessons deals with making eye contact.
"First we teach them [how to do it] then they'll try it with puppets and then they'll spend 45 minutes playing with each other and practising what they've learned."
The kids also pick up tips on how to control their jumpy genes. One relaxation technique is called bubble breathing. Dr. Coplan has the children inhale deeply and imagine they're "blowing up a balloon in their tummies."
Teachers and parents could benefit from the training as well.
For teachers, learning to deal with shy kids can be a process of trial and error. Most teacher education programs don't cover shyness.
"They didn't deal with it at all," says Ms. Williamson. She tries to keep the bashful children close and refrains from forcing them to interact. "The emphasis was more on children with attention issues and other learning difficulties."
Parents, too, improvise their approach to reserved offspring, often to a child's detriment. Most parents take one of two approaches: protect or attack. Dr. Coplan uses the example of taking a child swimming to illustrate them both.
An overprotective parent might see that their child is too scared to jump in the water with friends and whisk the kid away from the pool altogether, never to return. "It's a self-defeating strategy," says Dr. Kagan. "The kid will never learn to deal with these stressors."
Many parents will have the opposite impulse, throwing the child into the deep end and ignoring all signs of fright.
"There are parents who get angry with their kid's shyness," Dr. Coplan says. "In some group meetings parents will tell us they consider shyness as being rude and disobedient."
Dr. Coplan has found that graduated exposure works the best. "The first day you'll get them to dip their toes in, the next day they can go in up to their knees, then up to their bathing suit, then the shallow end, then the deep end."
It can be a labour-intensive process. At each state of exposure, the teacher or parent has to remind the child to relax. But, according to Dr. Coplan, it works. "We've followed up with the kids who've done our playgroups," he says. "Those who do them interact more at school, they're less anxious and they're more socially competent. They're encouraging results for sure."
In a study he's launching this fall, Dr. Coplan will poll teachers on how they confront shyness in the classroom. "The overall goal is to raise a little awareness about these kids," he says, "because they certainly aren't going to draw any attention to themselves."