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Each student who enters our classroom has unique characteristics and needs that deserve our attention. However, exceptionally shy students can present a special type of challenge. They often experience barriers to engaging in some of the most important learning activities, including discussion, debate, and even verbally answering questions. In response, we must be thoughtful and intentional as we endeavor to engage and instruct these learners.

Shy students reveal themselves in a variety of ways. They typically offer nonverbal clues such as the lack of eye contact or choosing to physically isolate, and they often slump while keeping their arms close to their bodies, as though they are trying to occupy as little physical space as possible. They may have few friends and not initiate conversations with other students. In class, they may rarely, if ever, volunteer to participate or be reluctant to answer a direct question in front of a group. They sometimes also adopt perfectionist tendencies, fearing that a misstep will draw unwelcomed attention.

However, it is a mistake to assume that shy students are not bright or capable of finding success. Shyness can mask intellect and hide curiosity. Our challenge is to help these students develop the courage, habits, and skills to overcome, or at least manage, their shyness.  

Yet, unless we are intentional in our efforts to support the learning and growth of shy students, we can make costly mistakes. Our failure to attend to the needs of shy students can have immediate consequences and long-term implications for their mental health and learning. Here are five of the most common mistakes educators make when teaching timid students and suggestions for how to avoid or overcome them.

The first mistake is failing to make expectations clear. Uncertainty can be a major source of anxiety for shy students. Structure, on the other hand, can provide comfort and reassurance. Having standard procedures and established routines provides shy students with a sense of what they can expect, how they might protect themselves, and how they can engage safely with learning and the class. Class norms for participation, interaction, listening, and respect can increase both the comfort and the confidence of shy students.

A second mistake is putting the spotlight on shy students in front of the rest of the class. Using shy students as examples, comparing their behavior to other more outgoing students, or even having them respond to a question without prior warning or preparation can generate fear and ignite panic. Rather than making them more confident, these experiences can further deepen their anxiety and make them even more fearful. Our actions can also place our relationship with these students at risk. Unexpectedly asking a timid student to do something well outside of their comfort level can feel uncaring, hurtful, and even cruel. As an alternative, we might meet with the student in advance and discuss what we want them to do and coach their readiness. In extreme cases, we might even rehearse with the student what they could say and do.

Third is failing to provide a safe path to build engagement and participation. Asking timid students to take big risks can backfire. For some students, the consequences for doing nothing are preferable to the prospect of having to speak or perform in front of an audience, even when the audience is made up of classmates. Rather, we might offer smaller, incremental steps that present manageable risk and exposure. Our coaching, encouragement, and reinforcement can help to build confidence and make the next steps easier and feel less risky.

A fourth misstep is ignoring opportunities for shy students to demonstrate their learning in more than one way. Some students who are reluctant to speak in front of a group might enthusiastically and articulately present what they have learned by writing about it. In some cases, shy students might be willing to demonstrate a process or procedure but would be reluctant to verbally describe it. Of course, there are times when the learning goal involves verbal descriptions and public speaking. When this is the case, we need to provide the scaffolding and support necessary to move shy students toward the objective without making the risk so high that we lose them.

Fifth is assigning shy students to groups without considering the dynamics. Placing shy students with certain peers may increase their anxiety and sense of isolation. They can become overwhelmed by the pressure and behavior of more active, social extroverts. Where possible, we might include at least one other student who is sensitive and will likely be supportive of a shy student. We also might assign specific roles aligned with the purpose of the group activity and take into account the personalities of group members. Of course, establishing clear norms for group operation and participation can provide important structure and reassurance for students who might otherwise become lost.

Teaching shy students can be a challenge, but it also can offer great rewards. The opportunity to watch a student emerge from their “shell,” build new confidence, and experience the opportunities that full engagement with life can bring is not to be missed. Equally rewarding is that we know we played a role in making this transformation happen.

Thought for the Week

When we understand another person’s perspective, what they are thinking and feeling, we are better able to relate to them and understand their needs.

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