Working with Shy Students

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Farah Najam

Farah Najam has considerable experience of teaching children at different levels. She has worked as a coordinator and has supervised and guided teachers at various levels. She has completed various online courses from such leading American Universities as Harvard University, UCLA and San Diego, where she received high grading. She has appeared on radio programmes (FM 101) as an educational expert. She also develops lesson plans for schools.


Class sessions have resumed. You walk into the halls looking for the right room. Your stomach turns; your throat feels tight: “Is this the right room? The number is right, but is it the right room?” You are still wondering: “Is this the right class?” In your body every nerve is on alert. The teacher walks in – yes, you are in the right class, whew!

But now the teacher will check the roster – the agony starts again because you actually have to say something. Your face feels hot and you are sweating. You fidget and can barely focus on what the teacher is saying. When will this agony end? Then other issues arise: how about that fear of what others may say, if you finally get the nerve to speak up? What if your answer is wrong?

If you have never suffered from this, then as a parent, teacher and/or student you may have witnessed it and can consider yourself lucky for not experiencing it first hand.

Rehana, a teacher, says: “There are a variety of students in the classroom. There are not only the positive and cheerful ones but also the negative and quiet students in the class. We should not call on students who are shy, as we may hurt their feelings by doing so. We should call on students, after we understand their character well. I still think so. It is of great consequence to call on students, because they get better practice by speaking in front of other students. I think the only thing that we can do for shy students is to accustom them to their surroundings and try to know them well. As a result of this, they will try to speak up themselves.”

Evans (1987) recorded the language of children during ‘sharing time’ sessions in nursery school, where individual students take turns in telling the teacher and classmates about things they have done or seen. Shy students introduced less topics and spoke less words about each topic. Their main length of utterance was shorter. Their contributions were simpler and tied to objects that they had brought with them. Shy children volunteered less information. They were more likely to offer no response or only minimal answers to a teacher’s questions. This tended to elicit further questions from the teacher and resulted in a stilted conversation.

Guidelines for parents and teachers to combat a child’s shyness

If you’re the parent of a shy child, you’ve probably already encountered adults, who see shyness as a character flaw or a problem waiting to be fixed. But, please, understand – shyness is not a character flaw.

  1. Sometimes people talk about shy children in front of them, as if they were somehow invisible. Such words as ‘withdrawn,’ ‘introverted’ or ‘inhibited’ can hurt the youngster. People probably assume kids don’t understand. Note that children are experts at reading tone of voice and facial expression.
  2. Some researchers claim that shy children are more visually perceptive than outgoing children. And as they are taking in more, seeing new things can seem overwhelming at first. Eventually, they may even join in. Watching can assist a child who is shy to understand new situations.
  3. You can help a shy child in learning so that he can handle novel events, if he is willing to do it gradually. If kids are pushed to join in, when they feel uncomfortable, then the situation usually backfires. Urging your son or daughter to go play in a group should be done gradually by accompanying him/her into the group. That is helping him/her getting involved with a group and then stepping back a bit. He/she might play for a while and then return to you, but the experience would have made the situation more familiar and thus more inviting.
  4. Establish a classroom environment that supports all students. Never make fun of students. Don’t put students on the spot and keep them there, while every person watches them squirm. Get to know the students and have individual conferences with them.
  5. Make students write papers in which they discuss their strengths and weaknesses as communicators. Do not ask them to read these out loud or share them with peers.
  6. Assist students to set a goal for improving themselves as communicators. Goals should be small and realistic. Talk to students privately, for example: “Rashid, why don’t you try to ask or answer one question in class tomorrow?” Teach Rashid how to prepare for participating in class – for example, have homework done, make notes of questions while doing homework, etc.
  7. Change the social environment. Assign the student to sit next to or work in groups with children who are outgoing. This will give the student a safe and inviting opportunity to break out of his/her shell.
  8. Check in daily. Engage the student in a private talk. Once he’s established a relationship with you, he will be more inclined to become actively involved in class.
  9. Put students in groups and record their thoughts.
  10. Attempt to make the groups small enough, so that the quiet students have to contribute. Have the students change responsibilities within the group throughout the semester (recorder, moderator, speaker, etc.), so that everyone practices a variety of skills.
  11. Students may talk more, when their thoughts become a text for the class (when they are recorded and put in context by the teacher or others). When notes are kept on the board, students tend to take notes as well. This training privileges student contributions, indicating that they are valuable.
  12. Assign special activities, such as encouraging the student to move around the room and interact with others, collect papers or hand out class materials. Such activities will increase their social confidence and make them feel special.
  13. What do we have in common? Students should be paired up and given the job of finding out, what they have in common. When working with younger children, it’s a good idea to give them some ground rules (e.g., only positive comments are allowed) as well as potential topic areas to explore (e.g., favorite food, hobbies, places they’ve been, etc.). Creative responses aside, this training is particularly useful because it challenges children (shy and non-shy alike) to see what they have in common and is the precursor to more adult versions of small talk.

Shyness is certainly not a personality flaw and can be overcome by effort and encouragement. Effort is a must on part of the person and encouragement is a necessity on part of people around him.

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