Dealing with shyness can be frustrating for teachers. Your questions go unanswered, tasks go uncompleted and it can feel like you’re not getting through at all. But it’s a far more detrimental experience for students, for whom shyness can mean missing out on learning and socialising and feelings of panic and anxiety. Shy students require special care and attention to encourage them to participate and reach their potential.
Recognising shyness: The common signs of shyness will be familiar: reluctance to speak or join other children in activities, speaking softly, refusing to make eye contact. Shy children are often intelligent and obedient, but will rarely volunteer for tasks or participate in discussions. It’s important to realize that there are some rare circumstances in which these symptoms may not actually indicate shyness but a different problem, such as deafness, speech delay or autism.
Anatomy of a shy student: What shy students may lack in social confidence they often make up for with their intrapersonal intelligence. This generally means a great depth of introspection and analysis, self-reflection and observation before action. While these intrapersonal traits are extremely valuable, they must be teamed with interpersonal (social) skills for a fully rounded and effective education. This is something teachers can actively encourage in the classroom.
Tips for engaging shy students:
- Allow them time: After asking a question or setting a task, allow students to write down and consider their answer before responding. When shy students are asked to respond on the fly they may feel threatened and withdraw from participating.
- Reward attempts to communicate: It’s better to respond positively to good behaviour than to punish wrong or misguided attempts to communicate. For example, don’t reprimand a shy student for mumbling; thank them for offering their opinion instead.
- Structure your classroom: Sitting students in groups that rotate throughout the year can help them get comfortable with their peers. Arranging desks in a horseshoe shape, so that all students are facing one another, can also be helpful.
- Group activities: Put children into pairs or groups (chosen by you) to encourage interpersonal communication. If possible, try not to pair shy students with more outgoing students or they might feel overwhelmed.
- Get them participating: It can be frightening to volunteer thoughts or opinions that might be incorrect. Encouraging children to ask questions is a less frightening way of getting them involved without risk of embarrassment. Once they’re comfortable speaking, they may be more forthcoming with sharing other thoughts too.
- Improve their self-esteem: Praising class work can help to boost a shy student’s self-esteem. Prominently displaying student work serves as a visual reminder that the student is a valuable member of the class. Giving students simple but important jobs (for example, handing out worksheets or supplies) can also make them feel included and valued.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.