Start with a room full of cars, stuffed animals, books, dolls, action figures, robots, building blocks and balloons, and then send in a group of preschoolers. 

Everything you might expect—relentless exploration, high-pitched chatter, a chase, maybe a dispute over a coveted electronic dog—is the opposite of what’s happening in a playroom in the Benjamin Building. Like magnets repelling each other, the 4- and 5-year-olds move apart to play solo, periodically glancing warily at the others.

While practically everyone experiences shyness sometimes, it’s so painfully pronounced in these children that they’re at elevated risk of becoming isolated, suffering from low self-esteem and developing anxiety disorders later, according to previous research at the University of Maryland and elsewhere. 

That’s why they’re on campus on a Sunday in October participating in the Turtle Program, an eight-week early intervention developed at UMD to help shy children come out of their shells. Its point isn’t to create social butterflies, says Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, a professor of psychology and developer of the program, but children unafraid to join a team, raise their hands in class or participate at show-and-tell.

“This is not about changing who they are, but instead helping them to function within their social world,” Chronis-Tuscano says. 

It’s important to intervene before debilitating shyness becomes a lasting part of their social identities, the researchers say. 

“Once the extremely shy, reticent child enters elementary school, he or she may not be well received by peers,” says Ken Rubin, a professor of human development and quantitative methodology and co-developer of the program. “It’s now well established that they are very often rejected, victimized and excluded from ongoing peer networks.”

The program is unique because parents get real-time coaching in how to deal with children’s social wariness during actual interactions. That could be crucial, because parents seem to play such a big role in either deepening children’s inhibitions or helping to overcome them.

“Maybe their parents don’t enroll them in sports … or take them to a birthday party,” says Chronis-Tuscano. “They see others having fun with each other while their child is sitting under the table holding onto their leg. Over time, they step in and protect their children more and more because, naturally, they don’t like seeing them distressed.”

A $3.1 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health is funding a study, led by Chronis-Tuscano and Rubin, comparing the Turtle Program to Cool Little Kids, an early intervention for shyness used worldwide that doesn’t include coaching.

In a preliminary study of the Turtle Program, parents and teachers reported improvement in the children who participated, and parents were observed becoming more positively responsive to their children. If the current, large-scale study establishes its validity, the program would likely become an international standard.

During one session in the fall, the effort to break the cycle of shyness plays out in three rooms:

In the playroom, several University of Maryland students teach social skills and facilitate child-directed group play. In another room, a parent sits with her daughter as the child picks up different toys. The mother wears an earpiece, and a doctoral student therapist observes and provides guidance. “Excellent labeled praise!” she tells the mother, who’s been instructed to avoid commands, criticisms and questions, but to provide plenty of praise and positive commentary on behavior she wants to see more of. 

In the final room, other parents watch the pair on closed-circuit TV—they’ll all take turns in the spotlight—and discuss each other’s performances with Christina Danko, an assistant research professor of psychology who’s facilitating today’s session. The point of the training, she says later, is to teach parents how to encourage children to navigate anxiety-producing social situations. Next week, she tells the group, their homework is to praise any interactions their kids have at the store, the playground or elsewhere.

“Any kind of approach behavior from your children you can pay attention to—that’s going to be so powerful for them,” she says.

A Germantown father who asked that his name not be used said he might have been misinterpreting his 4-year-old daughter’s behavior around adults she doesn’t know well.

“I guess I thought she was unapologetic if she didn’t have the time for someone she didn’t want to talk to,” he said. “I feel like I’m more cognizant of what’s going on now—that she is uncomfortable and impeded in these interactions. I just want her to be okay.”