Abstract. This study examined age differences in the content of
children's self-generated descriptions of their classmates'
socially withdrawn behaviors (i.e., fearful shyness, self-conscious
shyness, active isolation, and social disinterest). Children in Grade 1
(n=42) and Grade 5 (n=42) were interviewed and asked to describe the
reasons, behaviors, and emotions of children who play alone. Results
indicated that children in both grades made reference to several
different reasons why children play alone, along with various behaviors
and emotions that children display when playing alone. Children in Grade
5 made more references to self-conscious shyness and anxiety behaviors
than did children in Grade 1, and they were more likely to describe
peers as "shy." In contrast, more children in Grade 1
described peers as socially disinterested than did children in Grade 5.
Across grades, active isolation was viewed as the most problematic form
of solitude. Results are discussed in terms of the implications for peer
assessment of social withdrawal in school settings.
Over the last 20 years, researchers have established that children
who demonstrate frequent behavioral solitude in the presence of peers at
school are more likely to experience concurrent and future
socioemotional difficulties (see Rubin, Burgess, & Coplan, 2002, for
a recent review). The negative outcomes associated with behavioral
solitude are particularly evident from middle childhood to early
adolescence, when social withdrawal is associated with negative
self-perceptions of social competence and interpersonal relationships
(Hymel, Bowker, & Woody, 1993; Rubin, Hymel, & Mills, 1989), as
well as feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and depression (Boivin, Hymel,
& Bukowski, 1995; Rubin, LeMare, & Lollis, 1990).
A relation between social withdrawal and sociometric assessments of
peer rejection and unpopularity emerges in middle to late childhood
(e.g., Harrist, Zaia, Bates, Dodge, & Pettit, 1997; Rubin, Chen,
& Hymel, 1993), but it is less evident in early childhood (e.g.,
Ladd & Burgess, 1999; Rubin, 1982; Rubin & Asendorpf, 1993). In
explanation of these findings, it has been argued that social withdrawal
is less problematic in early childhood because it is typical behavior at
younger ages and may, therefore, not be negatively salient to the peer
group, and young children do not have well-developed perceptions of
socially isolated behaviors (Rubin, 1985; Younger, Schwartzman, &
Ledingham, 1985, 1986). Concerns remain, however, over how social
withdrawal has been defined and assessed. The goal of the present study
was to provide a closer examination of how children perceive social
withdrawal. In particular, children's ability to perceive and
describe social withdrawal was explored in both early and middle
Conceptualizing Different Forms of Social Withdrawal and Isolation
It has become increasingly recognized that a lack of social
interaction refers to a heterogeneous category of behaviors that vary
with regard to situational context, motivational tendencies, and
developmental consequences (see Coplan, 2000; Rubin et al., 2002, for
recent reviews). Simply stated, starting in early childhood, children
play alone for many different reasons.
Some children play alone because other children do not want to play
with them. Such children have been described as actively isolated by
peers (Asendorpf, 1993; Rubin, 1982, 1985). Actively isolated children
demonstrate solitary-active behaviors (i.e., solitary-dramatic and
functional play) when playing alone in the company of peers, and engage
in aggressive and immature behaviors that contribute to being rejected
by others (Coplan, Rubin, Fox, Calkins, & Stewart, 1994; Coplan,
Wichmann, & Lagace-Seguin, 2001; Rubin, 1982; Rubin & Mills,
1988). In terms of school adjustment, active isolation is associated
with a range of maladaptive outcomes, including social (e.g.,
externalizing problems) and academic difficulties (Coplan, Wichmann et
al., 2001; Rubin & Mills, 1988).
In contrast, other children may voluntarily withdraw themselves
from interaction with others. Several different reasons have been
postulated as to why children may choose to refrain from social
interaction. Unsociable (or socially disinterested) children seem to
prefer solitude over socializing with peers (Asendorpf & Meier,
1993; Coplan & Mosher, 2001; Rubin & Asendorpf, 1993). It may be
that unsociable children are more object-oriented rather than
people-oriented (Jennings, 1975). It has been suggested that unsociable
children have a low social-approach motivation, but not necessarily a
high social-avoidance motivation (Asendorpf, 1990), and thus are not
presumed to have any difficulties when they desire peer interaction
(Asendorpf, 1993). Behaviorally, unsociable children are thought to
engage in solitary-passive play (quiet exploration and/or constructive
activity) while playing alone (Coplan, 2000; Coplan et al., 1994; Coplan
& Rubin, 1998). In terms of school adjustment, social disinterest
and its related behaviors (i.e., solitary-passive play) have not been
associated with social or academic difficulties (e.g., Coplan, 2000;
Rubin, 1982), particularly in early childhood.
Another reason children may withdraw from social interaction is
because they are shy. Asendorpf (1990) describes shy children as caught
in an approach-avoidance conflict. They want to engage in social
interaction, but this desire is simultaneously inhibited by a desire to
avoid others, due to social wariness and anxiety. Shy children
demonstrate reticent behavior (e.g., onlooking behavior, being
unoccupied) in the company of peers (Coplan et al., 1994; Coplan,
Gavinski Molina, Lagace-Seguin, & Wichmann, 2001), which appears to
be reflective of anxiety and fear in social contexts (Coplan, 2000). In
school settings, shyness has been associated with internalizing forms of
maladaptation, including anxiety, loneliness, and low self-esteem (e.g.,
Coplan, 2000; Coplan & Rubin, 1998; Rubin et al., 2002).
Buss (1986) has argued that shyness can be further conceptualized
into fearful shyness and self-conscious shyness. There appears to be a
developmental component to this distinction. Fearful shyness develops
during the first year of life and declines as children age. In the
presence of unfamiliar people, fearfully shy children retreat, show
signs of wariness, and attempt to find comfort in their parents'
arms (Buss, 1986). Self-conscious shyness "involves the self as a
social object" (p. 40), and emerges at around 4-5 years of age as
children become increasingly conscious about being the focus of
attention (Buss, 1984). Asendorpf (1990) describes a similar
social-evaluative shyness, which is a fear of being evaluated negatively
in a particular social situation (e.g., oral presentations).
Self-consciously shy children may blush and avoid eye contact (Younger,
Schneider, Wadeson, Guirguis, & Bergeron, 2000).
Children's Perceptions of Social Withdrawal
It has been argued that young children may not view social
withdrawal as deviant because it is a relatively normative pattern of
behavior in early childhood (Rubin, 1982; Younger et al., 1986). As
children age, however, they view withdrawn behavior as more deviant and
more likely to draw negative attention from peers (Younger &
In a series of studies, Younger and colleagues (e.g., 1985, 1986)
explored age-related shifts in children's perceptions of social
withdrawal. These researchers directly examined children's
perceptions of aggression and withdrawal at different ages, using peer
nominations from the Pupil Evaluation Inventory (PEI; Pekarik, Prinz,
Liebert, Weintraub, & Neale, 1976). Results indicated that young
children find it more difficult to categorize peers reliably as socially
withdrawn than as aggressive, although this difficulty disappeared with
In interpreting these results, it was suggested that aggression is
more salient to younger children than withdrawn behaviors. In support of
this notion, Younger and Boyko (1987) reported that younger children
also have more difficulty recalling descriptions of hypothetical peers
who are socially withdrawn, as compared to aggressive. Moreover,
although children's recall of socially withdrawn behavior increases
with age, recall of aggressive behavior appears to remain steady
(Bukowski, 1990; Younger & Boyko, 1987;Younger & Piccinin,
1989). These studies, however, examined withdrawal only as a single,
homogeneous pattern of behavior. In light of recent findings suggesting
multiple forms of social withdrawal and isolation, it may be important
to reconsider these results. It may well be that a reason for younger
children's diffuse view of withdrawal is that the stimuli used were
The Present Study
The goal of the present study was to examine age differences in the
content of children's self-generated descriptions of withdrawn
behaviors (i.e., active isolation, social disinterest, fearful shyness,
and self-conscious shyness). To accomplish this goal, children's
descriptions of the different reasons, behaviors, and emotions
associated with "playing alone" were examined. Children from
two grades representing early and middle childhood (Grades 1 and 5) were
interviewed to ascertain their knowledge of the different forms of
In order to avoid any preconceived notions associated with the
terms "shyness" or "social withdrawal," children in
the current study were asked if they knew someone who "does not
play a lot with others." This terminology was selected because all
forms of social withdrawal and isolation (i.e., fearful shyness,
self-conscious shyness, active isolation, and social disinterest) share
the common trait of behavioral solitude. The children then were asked a
series of questions about why this peer did not play a lot with others,
the behaviors and emotions that might be associated with playing alone,
as well as whether the various withdrawn behaviors were seen as being
problematic in their grade.
Based on the results of previous research (e.g., Crozier &
Burnham, 1990; Younger & Piccinin, 1989), it was hypothesized that
both Grade 1 and Grade 5 children would refer to the constructs of
active isolation, fearful shyness, and social disinterest in their
descriptions, while more reference to self-conscious shyness was
expected in Grade 5. Moreover, the researchers expected the older
children to consider all forms of social withdrawal to be more
problematic than would the younger children.
Finally, some evidence suggests that social withdrawal may be more
of a risk factor for boys than for girls (Rubin et al., 2002). For
example, shyness in girls is more likely to be rewarded and accepted by
parents, and result in more positive interactions, whereas shyness in
boys is more likely to be discouraged and lead to more negative
interactions (e.g., Engfer, 1993; Radke-Yarrow, Richters, & Wilson,
1988; Simpson & Stevenson-Hinde, 1985; Stevenson-Hinde, 1989). In
addition, across the lifespan, shyness/withdrawal appears to be more
strongly associated with negative outcomes for boys than for girls
(Caspi, Elder, & Bem, 1988; Coplan et al., 2001; Morison &
Masten, 1991; Rubin, Chen, & Hymel, 1993; Stevenson-Hinde &
Glover, 1996). These findings have been interpreted within the context
that in a Western society, shyness is less acceptable for boys than for
girls (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). Therefore, in the present study,
gender differences also were explored in terms of the various reasons,
behaviors, and emotions associated with "playing alone."
The participants in this study were 84 children attending
elementary schools in Ottawa, Canada. There were 42 children from Grade
1 (20 males, 22 females, [M.sub.age] = 6.74 years, SD = .38) and 42
children from Grade 5 (22 males, 20 females, [M.sub.age] = 10.76 years,
SD = .31). Grades 1 and 5 were selected as the age groups for this study
because this age range has been used in previous studies in this area
(e.g., Crozier & Burnham, 1990; Younger et al., 1985, 1986; Younger
& Piccinin, 1989). The local school board policy did not permit the
collection of ethnicity or racial data, but the SES of the sample varied
from middle to upper-middle class.
Children were interviewed individually by a trained (1) female
researcher. Interviews typically lasted 15 minutes and were recorded on
audiocassette for later transcription and analyses. The interview
comprised 15 questions adapted from previous research in this area
(Crozier & Burnham, 1990; Younger et al., 2000). Each child received
the same interview questions in the same order. Interview questions were
first pre-tested (for content and clarity) with parents (n=7), teachers
(n=4), and children (n=9) of various ages.
Interview protocol. First, children were asked to think of a peer
they knew who "did not play a lot with others." Following
this, the children were asked to speculate on that peer's reasons
for playing alone (e.g., "Why do you think that -- does not play a
lot with others?"), behaviors (e.g., "What is -- doing when
he/she is not playing with others?"), and emotions (e.g., "How
do you think -- is feeling when he/she is not playing with
Children then were asked to think of another peer who "did not
play a lot with others," followed by the same questions. This
procedure was continued until the child could not think of any more
peers who did not play a lot with others. Children then were asked,
"What are some other reasons why children might not want to play
with others?" This question was followed by the questions
concerning behaviors and emotions described above. The average number of
responses Grade 1 children made was 5.50 (SD = 2.88), and the average
number of responses made by Grade 5 children was 6.62 (SD = 2.57).
Finally, children were asked whether fearful shyness (i.e.,
"children who play alone because they are scared to play with
others"), self-conscious shyness (i.e., "children who play
alone because they do not like to be noticed"), active isolation
(i.e., "children who play alone because other children do not like
them"), and social disinterest (i.e., "children who play alone
because they like to play by themselves") might be "a problem
in your grade."
Interview response coding. All of the children's responses to
the different questions (i.e., why questions, behavior questions, and
emotion questions) were coded independently, without linking their
responses back to their previous responses. Thus, a child's
response would have been coded for mentioning an emotion or a behavior
even if that emotion or behavior was inconsistent with the child's
explanation as to why that peer was withdrawn. Before coding of the
children's responses began, a quick overview of the children's
responses was done in order to see if their responses would fit the
expected categories. Some categories were added in order to take into
account some of the children's responses.
The content of the children's explanations as to why various
children did not play a lot with others was coded for indications of
children's awareness of fearful shyness (e.g., "because they
are scared"), self-conscious shyness (e.g., "because they are
embarrassed"), active isolation (e.g., "because no one wants
to play with them"), and social disinterest (e.g., "because
they want to play alone"). The authors recorded the proportion of
children who made at least one mention of each of the withdrawal
subtypes in any of their descriptions of "why" peers they knew
played alone. Thus, the proportion of children who "mentioned"
versus "did not mention" fearful shyness in response to any of
the "why" questions was computed. The proportion of children
who mentioned or did not mention self-conscious shyness, active
isolation, and social disinterest was similarly computed.
Children's answers to the question "What is -- doing when
he/she is not playing with others?" were coded for references to
various behaviors that children may display when playing alone. The
behavioral descriptions were derived from the Play Observation Scale
(POS) (Rubin, 1989), an observational taxonomy that has been employed in
the study of social withdrawal and social isolation across the past 25
years and has demonstrated excellent inter-rater reliability and
construct validity (e.g., Coplan, 2000; Coplan, Gavinski Molina, et al.,
2001; Coplan et al., 1994; Rubin, 1982; Rubin, Maioni, & Hormung,
1976; Rubin, Watson, & Jambor, 1978). Past researchers have used
combinations of observed behaviors to represent constructs related to
internalizing and externalizing behaviors (e.g., Coplan, 2000; Coplan,
Gavinski Molina et al., 2001; Coplan et al., 1994; Rubin, 1982; Rubin,
Maioni, & Hormung, 1976; Rubin, Watson, & Jambor, 1978).
Therefore, for the purposes of this study, groups of described behaviors
were created to match the behaviors on the POS. These included
references to behaviors related to anxiety (e.g., "hiding,"
"avoiding," "onlooking"), disruptive behaviors
(e.g., "showing off," "getting into trouble,"
"teasing"), solitary-active play ("playing with an
imaginary friend," "talking to himself"), and
solitary-passive play (e.g., "playing by herself,"
"reading"). As before, children were placed into groups that
made at least one (versus no) reference to each of the behavioral
categories in their responses to the "behavior" questions
throughout the interview.
Children's answers to the question "How is -- feeling
when he/she is not playing with others?" were coded for references
to various emotions that children may display when playing alone. Coded
emotions included happy, sad, fearful, embarrassed, angry, and neutral.
Children were categorized in terms of whether they referred to each of
the above emotions in response to the "emotion" questions
throughout the interview.
Finally, children were categorized in terms of their responses to
the question of whether each of these behaviors--fearful shyness,
self-conscious shyness, active isolation, and social disinterest--was a
problem in their grade ("yes" versus "no").
Inter-rater reliability. Inter-rater reliability was computed
between 2 trained coders (the interviewer, and a second research
assistant who was trained in the coding system) for 30 interviews (15
interviews in each grade--about 37% of the data). For the entire
interview coding scheme, Cohen Kappas ranged from k=.77-1.0.
Discrepancies in coding were resolved through discussion.
The goal of these analyses was to explore the main effects and
interactions between grade and gender in the prediction of responses to
the interview questions. Logit loglinear analysis was employed, because
it permits for tests of main effects and interactions of categorical
(discrete) variables (Tabachnick & Fidell, 1996). Standardized
parameter estimates are reported. No significant grade by gender
interactions were found for any analyses. As such, only main effects are
reported in the text. As well, given the number of analyses performed, a
more conservative alpha level was employed ([alpha]=.01) in order to
decrease the probability of Type 1 error.
Responses to "Why" Questions
Overall, 56 (66.7 percent) children made reference to active
isolation as a reason why children play alone, 33 (39.3 percent)
referred to social disinterest, 31 (36.9 percent) to fearful shyness,
and 20 (23.8 percent) to self-conscious shyness. Results from
Cochran's Q test analyses (used to compare the frequency
distribution of related variables) indicated that active isolation was
referred to by more children than any other type of shyness (Q(3)=30.95,
A series of logit loglinear analyses was conducted to examine the
main effects and interactions between references to different reasons
why a child does not play a lot with others, and children's grade
and gender. Four separate analyses were conducted, with references to
each of the following--fearful shyness, self-conscious shyness, active
isolation, and social disinterest--serving as the dependent variable,
and with both grade and gender serving as independent variables.
No significant main effects of grade or gender were found for the
proportion of children who referred to fearful shyness, active
isolation, or social disinterest in their descriptions of why peers
played alone. However, for self-conscious shyness, a significant effect
of grade did emerge ([lambda]/SE = 3.22, p <.001), with more children
in Grade 5 and fewer children in Grade 1 making reference to
self-conscious shyness than expected (z=3.6,p <.01). Observed and
expected frequencies for each of the responses to the "why"
questions for each grade are displayed in Table 1.
Responses to "Behavior" Questions
Overall, 54 (64.3 percent) children made reference to anxious
behaviors as a way of explaining what a child is doing when playing
alone, 43 (51.2 percent) referred to solitary-passive behaviors, 30
(35.7 percent) to disruptive behaviors, 18 (21.4 percent) to
solitary-active behaviors, and 8 (9.5 percent) to seeking contact/play
partner. Significantly more children referred to anxious behaviors and
solitary-passive behaviors than any other type of behavior (Q(4)=66.56,p
Results from logit loglinear analyses indicated no significant main
effects of grade or gender for the proportion of children who referred
to disruptive behaviors, solitary-passive play, or solitary-active play.
However, for anxious behaviors, a significant effect of grade emerged
([lambda]/SE=3.06, p <.01), with significantly more children in Grade
5 than expected and fewer children in Grade 1 than expected mentioning
anxious behaviors as a way of describing what a child is doing when
playing alone (z=3.2, p <.01). Observed and expected frequencies for
each of the responses to the "behavior" questions for each
grade are displayed in Table 2.
Responses to "Emotion" Questions
Overall, 74 (88.1 percent) children made reference to the emotion
"sad" as an explanation as to how a child is feeling when
playing alone, 30 (35.7 percent) referred to the emotion
"happy," 7 (8.3 percent) referred to the emotion
"scared/fearful," 4 (4.8 percent) referred to the emotion
"neutral," 3 (3.6 percent) referred to the emotion
"angry," and 1 (1.2 percent) referred to the emotion
"embarrassed." Results from Cochran's Q test analyses
indicated that the emotion "sad" was referred to by more
children than any other type of emotion (Q(6)=281.68, p <.01).
Further analyses were conducted only for the responses "sad"
and "happy," as they represented the only responses where more
than 20 percent of cells had an expected frequency of greater than 5.
Results from logit loglinear analyses indicated no significant main
effects of grade or gender in the proportion of children who referred to
sadness or happiness in their descriptions of how peers felt when
Responses to "Problem" Questions
Overall, 55 (65.48 percent) children viewed active isolation as a
problem in their grade, 38 (45.24 percent) viewed fearful shyness as a
problem, 26 (39.95 percent) viewed self-conscious shyness as a problem,
and 12 (14.29 percent) viewed social disinterest as a problem. Results
from Cochran's Q test analyses indicated that active isolation was
viewed as the most problematic behavior (Q(3)=57.31, p <.01).
A final series of logit loglinear analyses was conducted, with
responses to whether fearful shyness, self-conscious shyness, active
isolation, and social disinterest was "a problem in your
grade" ("yes" versus "no") serving as the
dependent variable, and both grade and gender serving as independent
No significant main effects of grade or gender were found for the
proportion of children who reported that fearful shyness, self-conscious
shyness, or social disinterest was a problem in their grade. However,
for active isolation, a significant effect of grade did emerge
([lambda]/SE =2.36, p <.01), with significantly more children in
Grade 5 and fewer children in Grade 1 indicating that active isolation
was a problem in their grade (z=2.4, p < .05). Observed and expected
frequencies for each of the "yes" versus "no"
responses to the "problem" questions for each grade are
displayed in Table 3.
The purpose of this study was to examine age differences in the
content of children's self-generated descriptions of different
types of withdrawn behaviors. Overall, results indicated that children
in both Grade 1 and Grade 5 were able to generate various reasons,
behaviors, and emotions that describe different forms of social
withdrawal. These findings suggest that even younger children have
knowledge of, and are able to perceive, different subtypes of social
withdrawal in peers, including fearful shyness, self-conscious shyness,
active isolation, and social disinterest.
Knowledge of "Why" Children Play Alone
In response to questions about why children might play alone, more
children referred to the construct of active isolation than any other
reason. Active isolation is conceptually associated with the display of
aggression. Results of past research (e.g.,Younger & Boyko, 1987;
Younger & Piccinin, 1989) suggest that from an early age, children
seem to have a facility to encode and recall descriptions of peers who
are aggressive. As such, it was not surprising to note that children
were more likely to describe actively isolated children.
However, it is also notable that children at both age levels
mentioned several different reasons why a child plays alone, suggesting
that they viewed playing alone from a multidimensional perspective. For
example, both Grade 5 and Grade 1 children in this study mentioned with
equal frequency reasons pertaining to active isolation (e.g., "he
plays alone because no one wants to play with him"), social
disinterest (e.g., "she plays alone because she likes to play
alone"), and fearful shyness (e.g., "he plays alone because he
is scared to play with others"). Thus, it appears as though even
younger children do not view "playing alone" as a
Significant age differences were observed only for self-conscious
shyness. Consistent with findings of past research (e.g., Crozier &
Burnham, 1990), a higher proportion of children in Grade 5 than in Grade
1 referred to self-conscious shyness as a possible reason why a child
plays alone. This finding is in agreement with the notion that younger
children tend to lack both the cognitive ability (e.g., appreciation of
the social self) and the appropriate socialization experiences (e.g.,
comments from parents/ peers that other people are observing and
evaluating them) (Yuill & Banerjee, 2001).
Furthermore, it has been argued (Asendorpf, 1989; Crozier &
Burnham, 1990) that self-conscious shyness is not a substitute for
fearful shyness; rather, both can be present in older children. The
findings from the present study lend some support to this
contention--these results did not indicate a decline with age, in
references to fearful shyness.
Knowledge of "Behaviors" Displayed When Children Play
When asked what behaviors peers displayed when playing alone,
children in both grades more frequently made reference to
solitary-passive behaviors than to disruptive and solitary-active
behaviors. The relative frequency of these descriptions is quite
consistent with the results of observational research regarding the
observed frequency of different solitary behaviors in early childhood.
For example, it has been reported that solitary-active behavior only
occurs approximately 3 percent of the time during free play (Coplan et
al., 1994; Coplan, Wichmann et al., 2001). In contrast, solitary-passive
play is quite common during free play, as it is observed to occur
between 31 percent and percent of the time (e.g., Coplan, 2000; Coplan,
Gavinski Molina et al., 2001).
No age differences were found in terms of references to disruptive
behaviors, solitary-passive behaviors, and solitary-active behaviors as
ways of explaining what a child is doing when playing alone. This was
not surprising, given that both aggressive behaviors and solitary-active
play are highly salient and overt, and thus more easily recognizable by
both younger and older children (Rubin, 1982; Younger et al., 1985,
1986). Moreover, the fact that solitary-passive play is both common and
normative in childhood (Coplan, 2000; Rubin, 1982) likely makes this
form of play more readily recognizable to children.
A significant age difference was found for behaviors related to
anxiety. A higher proportion of children in Grade 5 than Grade 1
mentioned anxious behaviors. These results are consistent with the
literature suggesting that younger children are more sensitive to
others' external, overt behavior as compared to others'
covert, internal characteristics (Shantz, 1983). Anxious behaviors
(e.g., wandering around aimlessly, remaining unoccupied) seem to reflect
the "covert" end of the behavioral continuum. Moreover,
although younger children have some understanding about
self-presentational concerns, they still have some difficulty in
understanding how these concerns can lead to feeling anxious in
different situations (Yuill & Banerjee, 2001). In addition, as
children age, their understanding regarding how self-presentational
concerns lead to symptoms of anxiety increases, because of both
cognitive factors (e.g., older children are increasingly capable of
appreciating the fact that their peers more frequently evaluate them)
and social motivational factors (e.g., older children tend to be more
worried about being evaluated by others) (Yuill & Banerjee, 2001).
In any event, these results suggest that although young children may be
less likely to describe certain types of nonsocial behaviors in their
behavioral characterizations of withdrawn peers, they still can describe
several different behaviors associated with playing alone.
Knowledge of "Emotions" Displayed When Children Play
When asked how a child playing alone might feel, children in both
grades made references to sadness and happiness. This finding is in
keeping with the notion that children learn about these two emotions
sooner, and more readily understand them, as compared to emotions
(Michalson & Lewis, 1985).
It was interesting to note that in both grades, more than one-third
of children mentioned the emotion "happy" to describe children
who play alone. It can be speculated that many children are under the
impression that not all peers are sad or upset when they play alone.
This pattern of results is consistent with these findings regarding
children's descriptions of reasons why some children play alone
(i.e., social disinterest), and the types of behaviors (i.e.,
solitary-passive behaviors) that are exhibited while playing alone.
Presumably, children who prefer to play alone would not be expected to
appear visibly sad or anxious when doing so (Asendorpf, 1993).
Furthermore, the display of solitary-passive behavior is not associated
with overt signs of anxiety in early childhood (Coplan, 2000; Coplan et
Social Withdrawal As a "Problem"
Children who do not frequently interact with their peers are
thought to be at risk for a host of later maladaptive outcomes (Rubin et
al., 2002). In the present study, children in both grades made clear
distinctions in terms of which forms of withdrawal might be considered
most problematic at school. This provides additional evidence that
children are able to differentiate among different subtypes of social
withdrawal: children attributed different risk outcomes to different
subtypes, with some social withdrawal subtypes viewed as more
problematic than others.
At both grades levels, children viewed active isolation as more of
a problem at school than other forms of shyness or withdrawal. There is
certainly evidence in the literature that active isolation is
problematic. Actively isolated children are thought to display
aggressive and immature forms of behavior (Rubin & Mills, 1988).
Moreover, aggression is among the strongest predictors of peer rejection
and is associated with a host of maladaptive outcomes in childhood and
adolescence (Parker & Asher, 1987; Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker,
1998). In addition, a significant age difference was found for the
perception of active isolation being a problem. Grade 5 children viewed
this behavior as significantly more problematic than did Grade 1
children, suggesting that such behavior may become increasingly deviant
Although viewed as less problematic than active isolation, fearful
shyness was considered a problem by more than 40 percent of children
across grades, while self-conscious shyness was viewed as problematic by
almost one-third of respondents. Less than 15 percent of children across
grades viewed social disinterest as a problem. This finding is in
keeping with the accumulating research to suggest that shy and socially
wary children do experience difficulties in childhood (Rubin &
Asendorpf, 1993). It was somewhat unexpected that children in Grade 5
did not view self-conscious shyness as more problematic than did
children in Grade 1. It is possible that the wording of the question
posed to children ("Some children play alone because they do not
like to be noticed") did not fully capture what serf-conscious
shyness means. A more detailed description of self-conscious shyness may
Caveats and Future Directions
The results from this study provide some of the first empirical
evidence to suggest that children as young as 6 attribute a variety of
reasons, behaviors, and emotions to children who play alone. In light of
these findings, it is possible that past researchers may have
underestimated younger children's ability to perceive adequately
social withdrawal in their peers.
Future research should be undertaken to replicate and extend these
findings. For example, phrasing the initial interview question in the
"positive" (i.e., "Why do children play with
others?") may elicit different types of responses. Moreover, given
that the current sample only consisted of children in Grade 1 and Grade
5, it would be worthwhile to examine the progression of children's
knowledge of social withdrawal, as well as their changing cognitive and
social motivational factors, at additional age periods from early
childhood to adolescence.
The risk status of different forms of shyness and social withdrawal
remains somewhat unclear. There is conflicting evidence as to whether
different forms of social withdrawal are associated with social and
academic maladjustment over time. A better understanding of these
constructs and their meaningfulness for young children is an important
step in improving the identification process for potentially "at
risk" children, and in the development and implementation of
intervention programs. It seems clear that different types of socially
withdrawn children might benefit from different forms of ameliorative
intervention strategies. For example, actively isolated children may be
best served by social skills training, whereas fearfully shy children
may benefit most from a focus on emotional regulation capabilities.
Moreover, there is considerable doubt as to whether socially
disinterested children warrant any form of intervention at all. Future
research is required to improve assessment protocols, in order to
optimize the identification of different forms of socially withdrawn
(1) The research assistant had completed a graduate course in child
assessment, as well as additional training specific to the current study
from a researcher with extensive previous experience in conducting child
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Marie-Helene Gavinski Molina
University of Ottawa
Robert J. Coplan
Alastair J. Younger
University of Ottawa
Authors' Note: This research was supported by an Ontario
Graduate Scholarship to Marie-Helene Gavinski Molina and by a Social
Science Research Council of Canada grant to Robert Coplan. The authors
wish to thank Kim O'Neil and Gregg Dunn for their help with the
transcription and coding of data. They also wish to thank all the
principals, teachers, and children who participated in this study.
Requests for reprints should be addressed to Marie-Helene Gavinski
Molina, School of Psychology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario K1N
6N5, Canada, or Robert J. Coplan, Department of Psychology, Carleton
University, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, Ontario K1S 5B6, Canada.
Observed (Expected) Frequencies of Responses by Grade to
"Why do children play alone?"
Reason for Playing Alone
Fearful Self-conscious Active Social
Shyness Shyness Isolation Disinterest
No mention 30 (26.5) 39 (32.0) 13 (14.0) 27 (25.5)
Mentioned 12 (15.5) 3 (10.0) 29 (28.0) 15 (16.5)
No mention 23 (26.5) 25 (32.0) 15 (14.0) 24 (25.5)
Mentioned 19 (15.5) 17 (10.0) 27 (28.0) 18 (16.5)
Observed (Expected) Frequencies of Responses by Grade to
"How children behave when playing alone"
Behavior When Playing Alone
Disruptive Anxious Solitary- Solitary-
Behavior Behavior Passive Active
No mention 27 (27.0) 22 (15.0) 20 (20.5) 30 (33.0)
Mentioned 15 (15.0) 20 (27.0) 22 (21.5) 12 (9.0)
No mention 27 (27.0) 8 (15.0) 21 (20.5) 36 (33.0)
Mentioned 15 (15.0) 34 (27.0) 21 (21.5) 6 (9.0)
Observed (Expected) Frequencies of Responses by Grade for
"Reasons for playing alone being a problem"
Reasons for Playing Alone Being a Problem
Fearful Self-conscious Active Social
Shyness Shyness Isolation Disinterest
Yes 20 (19.0) 12 (12.8) 22 (27.2) 5 (6.0)
No 22 (23.0) 28 (27.2) 19 (13.8) 36 (35.0)
Yes 18 (19.0) 14 (13.2) 33 (27.8) 7 (6.0)
No 24 (23.0) 27 (27.8) 9 (14.2) 34 (35.0)