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Social Anxiety and Maladjustment in the Preschool


Robert J. Coplan, Ph.D.

Department of Psychology
Carleton University
1125 Colonel By Drive
Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA, K1S 5B6
(613)520-2600 ext. 8691


This study was conducted to investigate the role of overt anxious behaviors during peer play as a marker variable for young children's social maladjustment in preschool. Participants were 175 children (88 males) between the ages of 45 and 57 months (M = 51.25, SD = 3.29). The children were attending public junior kindergarten classes in Ottawa, Canada. Based on behavioral observations during free play , a group of extremely 'socially anxious' children was identified (n = 10) whose scores in terms of observed anxious behaviors (i.e., automanipulatives, crying) were greater than 1 SD above the mean. This group was subsequently compared to a 'control group' (n = 158) who displayed no anxious behaviors. 'Anxious' children did not differ from their peers in terms of age, parental education, receptive vocabulary, or gender. Among the significant results, 'anxious' children, as compared to their peers, were rated by mothers as more shy and difficult to soothe; were observed to spent more time in reticent and teacher-oriented behaviors; and have a more negative attitude towards preschool. Results are discussed in terms of the relation between social anxiety and social adjustment in early childhood.

    Broadly defined, childhood social anxiety involves worry or excessive concern about social situations. Social anxiety in childhood is associated with a number of negative adjustment outcomes, particularly with regards to children's peer relations (e.g., Le Greca et al., 1988; Vernberg et al., 1992). However, social anxiety has been examined almost exclusively in middle childhood and adolescence (e.g., Ginsburg et al., 1998; La Greca & Stone, 1993; Vernberg et al., 1992). Less is known about the etiology, concomitants and predictive outcomes of social anxiety in early childhood. Although researchers have explored constructs relating to social anxiety with younger children, these studies have focussed primarily on children's responses to novel settings. The goal of the present study was to investigate the overt display anxious behaviors during peer play in a familiar setting as a marker variable for preschool children's social and emotional maladjustment.

Social anxiety and related constructs in early childhood

    Researchers have explored constructs conceptually related to social anxiety in early childhood. For example, the constructs of inhibition, shyness, and social withdrawal have received a fair amount of recent research attention. However, this literature is somewhat clouded by a lack of a standard nomenclature and a vast array of theoretical approaches. Kagan and colleagues have extensively described the temperamental construct of inhibition (e.g., Kagan, 1997; Kagan, Reznick, & Snidman, 1988). In early childhood, extremely inhibited children demonstrate characteristically wary and anxious behaviors during interactions in novel settings with unfamiliar adults and peers. Inhibition appears to involve biological substrates, which have been argued to reflect a low threshold of arousal in the limbic-hypothalamic axis (Fox, 1989; Kagan et al., 1988; Reznick et al., 1986). There is some evidence to suggest that extremely inhibited children are at greater risk for the later development of anxiety disorders, panic disorder, and social phobia (e.g., Rosenbaum et al., 1991; Hirschfeld et al., 1992).

    The inhibition literature pertains to children's anxious responses to novel settings. However, children who are inhibited in novel settings are not necessarily shy or anxious in more familiar settings (Asendorpf, 1990, 1993; Paquette & LaFreniere, 1994). Shyness in more familiar contexts is thought to involve social evaluative concerns (Asendorpf, 1990; 1991; 1993). It has been suggested that these concerns may be reflected behaviorally in terms of social withdrawal, a lack of social interaction with peers. Results from longitudinal studies have indicated that a high frequency of non-social activities in kindergarten predicts feelings of depression, low self-worth, and anxiety in middle childhood (Hymel et al., 1990; Rubin, & Mills, 1988), and loneliness and depression in adolescence (Rubin, 1993; Hymel et al., 1990; Rubin, et al., 1989).

    However, there is recent evidence to suggest that only certain forms of non-social play are indicative of social fear and anxiety. For example, among preschoolers, reticent behavior, which includes onlooking behavior (prolonged watching of peers without accompanying play) and being unoccupied, has been linked empirically with temperamental shyness and internalizing problems (Coplan, in press; Coplan & Rubin, 1998). As well, there appears to be an association between teacher-oriented behaviors in the early childhood classroom and indices social maladjustment, in particular internalizing problems (e.g., Ladd & Mars, 1986; Marturano, 1980).

    Relatively little is known about social anxiety among young children, particularly when displayed in familiar social settings. Social anxiety may be experienced in response to social novelty, but also in terms of fear of scrutiny and social evaluation in familiar settings (Bernstein, et al., 1996). In the regard, the goal of the present study was to clarify whether the overt display of anxiety during peer play among preschoolers may be a marker for socio-emotional maladjustment.

    In order to accomplish this goal, a group of 'socially anxious' preschoolers was identified based on observations of displayed anxiety during free play. Comparisons between 'anxious' and 'non-anxious' preschoolers were made in terms of several conceptually relevant outcome variables, including child temperament characteristics, free play behaviors, and children's attitude towards preschool. Socially anxious preschoolers were expected to be more shy and emotional, as well as more difficult to soothe than non-anxious children. With regards to free play behaviors, anxious children were hypothesized to display more 'anxious' forms of non-social play (i.e., reticent behavior, teacher-oriented behavior) and less social and parallel play. Finally, given their displayed fear and anxiety, socially anxious children were expected to have a less positive attitude toward their preschool experiences.




    Participants in this study were 175 preschoolers (87 females, 88 males) between the ages of 45 and 57 months (M = 51.24, SD = 3.29). Children were attending half-day public junior kindergarten classes in 10 schools in Ottawa, Canada. Schools were selected from various locals within the Ottawa region (e.g., rural, urban, inner-city). As such, the sample was representative of the wide range of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity found in the area. Unfortunately, school board policy did not allow for the collection of specific data pertaining to the ethnic composition of the sample.


    Data was collected from parents, children interviews, and direct observations. Demographic data and parental ratings of child temperament were collected after two months of preschool, all other data collection took place six months into the preschool year.


Parents completed a basic demographic questionnaire and the Colorado Child Temperament Inventory (CCTI, Buss & Plomin, 1984, Rowe & Plomin, 1977), a 30 item questionnaire designed to assess various temperamental characteristics (i.e., shyness, emotionality, soothability, attention, activity). Rowe and Plomin (1977) reported moderate to high internal consistency estimates and one-week test-retest reliability coefficients for all sub-scales. Parents were also given a questionnaire designed to assess parental opinions and satisfaction with various aspects of their child’s preschool experiences. Included were two items pertaining to how much their child 'enjoys going to preschool', and how much their child 'talks positively about preschool' which were rated on a five point likert scale. These two items were significantly inter-correlated (r = .65, p < .01) and subsequently aggregated to create a measure of 'child attitude toward preschool'.


Six months into the preschool year, children were interviewed and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test - Revised (PPVT-R, Dunn & Dunn, 1981) was administered. The PPVT-R is used to assess receptive vocabulary and has well established psychometric properties (Childers, Durham, & Wilson, 1994; Miller & Lee, 1993).


Behavioral observations were undertaken during free play sessions at preschool. Over a period of several weeks, children were observed for a series of ten-second intervals totaling not more than four minutes per day. Overall, approximately 12 minutes (or 72 codes) of data were collected for each child. Children's free play behaviours were coded based on an adapted version of the Play Observation Scale (POS, Rubin, 1989). For each ten-second interval, the child’s predominant free play behavior was recorded. Possible codes included social play (group play and peer conversation), parallel activity (i.e., playing next to but not with other children); solitary passive play (i.e., exploratory and constructive activities while playing alone); reticent behavior (i.e., unoccupied and onlooking behaviors) and teacher-oriented behaviors (i.e., interactions with teacher). In addition, overt anxious behaviors (i.e., automanipulatives - digit sucking, hair pulling) were coded if they occurred at all in each ten-second interval. Each of the coded behaviors was proportionalized by dividing by the total number of ten-second intervals recorded.

    The observational data was collected by six trained observers. Inter-rater reliability was computed for pairs of observers based on about 120 minutes (or 720 coding intervals) of behavioural coding. For a complete variable matrix, Cohen's Kappa between pairs of observers ranged from K = .86 to K = .88.



    Identification of socially 'anxious' children. A group of extremely 'socially anxious' children was identified (n = 10), whose observed anxious behaviors were greater than one standard deviation above the mean (Manxious = .07, S.D. = .05). A comparison group of 'non-anxious' children (n = 158) consisted of the children who were not observed to engage in any overt indications of social anxiety during free play.

    Preliminary comparisons. To begin with, social anxious and non-anxious children were compared in terms of demographic and other relevant variables. Results from a series of independent group t-tests indicated that anxious and non-anxious children did not differ significantly in terms of (i) child age; (ii) maternal and paternal education; and (iii) receptive vocabulary. In addition, results from c 2 analyses revealed that the gender composition of the anxious group (4 males, 6 females) and non-anxious group (81 males, 77 females) did not differ significantly from expected values.

Primary Analyses

    The differences between socially anxious and non-anxious children were explored in terms of temperament characteristics, free play behaviors, and attitude towards preschool. Means and standard deviations for all variables are displayed in Table 1.

Table 1

Comparing anxious and non-anxious preschoolers

                                               Anxious            Non-Anxious

Child Temperament:

    shyness                                 2.77 (.86)         2.26 (.73)

    soothability                          2.94 (.57)         3.48 (.72)

    emotionality                         2.82 (1.13)       2.52 (.77)

    attention                               3.14 (.56)         3.56 (.60)

    activity                                 3.51 (.52)         3.87 (.65)

Free Play Behaviours:

    social                                     .51 (.23)             .48 (.22)

    parallel                                  .05 (.05)             .11 (.10)

    solitary-passive                     .14 (.13)             .28 (.18)

    reticent                                   .11 (.14)             .07 (.08)

    teacher-oriented                     .14 (.10)             .08 (.06)

Attitude towards preschool      3.84 (1.46)         4.48 (.71)

note: numbers in parentheses represent standard deviations.

    Child temperament. The first set of analyses concerned child temperament variables. Results indicated that as compared to their non-anxious counterparts, socially anxious children were rated by parents as being significantly more shy (t = 1.81, p < .08), more difficult to soothe (t = 2.35, p < .05), and as having lower attention span (t = 1.79, p < .08).

    Free play behaviours. The next set of analyses involved children's free play behaviors. Anxious and non-anxious children did not differ significantly in terms of social play. However, as compared to the non-anxious comparison group, anxious children were observed to engage in significantly more reticent behavior and interaction with teachers (t = 2.27, p < .05), less parallel play (t = 2.86, p < .05), and less solitary-passive activities (t = 2.38, p < .05).

    Attitude towards preschool. The final analysis pertained to differences in terms of children's 'attitude' towards preschool. Results indicated that compared to their non-anxious classmates, anxious preschoolers were rated by their mothers as having a significantly less positive attitude towards preschool (t = 2.08, p < .05).



    The goal of this study was to clarify the role of displayed overt anxiety during peer play as a marker variable for social and emotional maladaptation in early childhood. In this regard, preschoolers who were observed to engage in a relatively high frequency of anxious behaviors during free play were compared to their non-anxious peers in terms of a variety of outcome variables. Results provided preliminary support for the notion that even in preschoolers, displayed anxiety in a familiar social setting is related to indices of social and emotional maladjustment. In particular, social anxiety in the preschool is related to a constellation of temperamental characteristics and play behaviors pertaining to the dimension of internalizing problems.

    Socially anxious children did not differ from their anxious counterparts in terms of demographic variables. No differences were found between the two groups in terms of gender composition, age, and parental education, a strong correlate of socioeconomic status (e.g., Wills et al., 1995). The lack of gender differences is consistent with findings among extreme groups of inhibited children at this same age (Kagan, 1989). As a group, anxious children did not differ in terms of receptive vocabulary from their non-anxious peers. However, future research is required to further explore whether verbal abilities may serve as a protective factor for anxious children in terms of negative outcomes. For example, Asendorpf (1994) reported that verbal intelligence predicted a significant decrease in both inhibition towards strangers and in class from four through ten years of age.

    Socially anxious children differed from their peers in terms of a conceptually related constellation of temperamental characteristics and play behaviors. In terms of temperamental traits, extremely anxious children were rated by mothers as significantly more shy and difficult to soothe, as well as having lower attention span. Shy children are wary in the face of novel social stimuli. However, it seems clear that some children do not overcome their feelings of wariness and fear even when the situation becomes more familiar. For example, Coplan (in press) demonstrated that shy preschoolers who continued to display signs wariness several weeks into the preschool year, were more liked to be rated by teachers as having internalizing problems by the end of the school year.

    Moreover, temperamental shyness, poor attention span, and emotional dysregulation have been associated with negative outcomes in preschools, both in terms of social (e.g., Jewsuwan et al., 1993) and academic adjustment (e.g., Martin, 1989). This combination of temperamental traits do represent a 'good fit' with the environmental demands of the early childhood classroom (Matheny, 1989).

    With regards to free play behaviors, in keeping with the psychological zeitgeist of the last several decades, socially anxious children might have been expected to be socially withdrawn, spending a high frequency of their time 'playing alone'. However, consistent with recent research into the heterogeneous nature of behavioral solitude, the picture appears to be somewhat more complex.

    Anxious children did not differ from their classmates in terms of observed engagement in social play. However, when they were not engaged in group play or peer conversations, socially anxious children demonstrated a significantly different behavioral profile. To begin with, anxious children engaged in significantly less parallel play and solitary-passive activities than non-anxious children. Parallel play is a common activity in early childhood, and it is believed to represent a 'stepping stone' towards more complex forms social interaction (Rubin & Coplan, 1996). Solitary-passive behavior includes the quiet exploration of objects and/or constructive activity while playing alone. This form of nonsocial play has not been associated with concurrent indices of maladaptation in early childhood (Coplan & Rubin, 1998; Coplan et al., 1994). Moreover, in early childhood, such behavior tends to be reinforced positively by teachers, parents and peers, and its display is associated with peer acceptance (Rubin, 1982). It has been argued that solitary-passive behaviors represent the preferred solitary play form of unsociable but emotionally well-regulated children (Rubin et al., 1995). In this regard, was not surprising to find that socially anxious children engaged in less of this solitary behavior than non-anxious children.

    Socially anxious children were observed to engage in significantly more reticent and teacher-oriented behaviors than their non-anxious classmates. As discussed previously, reticent behaviors include the prolonged watching of other children without accompanying play (onlooking), or being unoccupied. In early childhood, this form of nonsocial activity has been associated with internalizing problems when displayed in both novel and familiar social settings (Coplan, in press; Coplan & Rubin, 1998; Coplan et al., 1994). As well, a high frequency of interaction with teachers has been related to internalizing problems and other forms of maladjustment (e.g., Factor & Frankie, 1980; Ladd & Mars, 1986; Marturano, 1980; Roper & Hinde, 1978).

    The fact that anxious children engaged in both social and 'wary' free play behaviors can be viewed as evidence of an approach-avoidance conflict. Asendorpf (1990) has suggested that although shy children may be desirous of peer interaction (high social approach motivation), this motivation is simultaneously inhibited by social fear and anxiety (high social avoidance motivation). The results from the current study suggest that although socially anxious children appear to be able to overcome their fears and engage in social interaction on some occasions, they also spend a significant proportion of time onlooking, unoccupied, or interacting with teachers. When faced with feelings of anxiety, these children may seek the comfort of teachers as a coping mechanism, or retreat to onlooking behaviors without making attempts to initiate social interactions.

    Finally, socially anxious children demonstrated a less positive attitude towards preschool than their classmates. According to maternal ratings, anxious children talked less positively about preschool and did not look forward as much to going to school each day. Thus, anxious children seemed to recognize the preschool as a less inviting environment. If this adverse attitude toward school were to continue or intensify, it may have increasing negative implications in future years.

    Given their preliminary nature, the results from the current study should be interpreted with some caution. Replication with a larger sample of anxious children would seem warranted. This could be achieved by increasing the size of the original sample and by utilizing longer observational periods. In addition, it would be helpful to explore a wider range of adjustment outcome variables. Nevertheless, these findings do provide some initial evidence to suggest that the display of overt anxious behaviors in preschool may be a marker variable for social fear, internalizing problems, and other forms of socio-emotional maladjustment. Future research is required to expand upon these results. In particular, the relations between shyness, social withdrawal, social anxiety and social phobia need to be clarified, and the longitudinal outcomes associated with social anxiety need to be explored into middle childhood and beyond.



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