Seven tips to encourage shy students

While labelling students shy or timid can be limiting, it’s important that teachers know how best to connect and work with students who are slow to warm.

Everyone has heard the saying ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’ which in a classroom context usually means that the loudest students, the extroverts and the ones who constantly raise their hands (or call out the answers) often get the majority of the teacher’s attention.

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The result is that the quiet children, the ones who don’t make a fuss, who don’t raise their hands, the neurodivergent and the anxious can be overlooked. The goal isn’t to make shy or introverted students into extroverts, but to meet them where they are at, in ways they feel most comfortable.

Here are 7 ways to encourage the quiet children in your classroom.

1. Don’t label them

Parenting expert Maggie Dent in an interview with ABC’s Alice Zaslavsky says it’s important not to label children, because it can have the unintended effect of making children behave to meet that label. If people have expectations that a child is shy, then that child may be forced to go ‘back in their box’ even if they are beginning to feel a bit braver.

“When we’re labelled, those labels tend to define us.” Maggie Dent

  1. Respect their limits and boundaries

It’s important to remember that a student who is slow to warm is not necessarily rejecting you or your teaching, and just because you are an outgoing, energetic teacher, you can’t expect that students will respond similarly. You must meet students where they are at. This might mean toning down your own behaviour and speaking more quietly or mirroring the behaviours they feel comfortable with.

  1. Give them a direct chance to respond

Asking for a ‘show of hands’ or expecting kids to compete with one another for your attention is a surefire way of overlooking the quiet kids. If you’re looking for class volunteers for a task or trying to determine preferences for an end-of-term movie party, ask them by name. It might be in the context of the class or a private one-on-one but ensure they know you are interested in their individual opinion.

  1. Don’t assume they lack confidence

Professor Joe Moran, a cultural historian and author believes that people who are shy are often misunderstood and assumed to lack confidence in themselves. However, this often isn’t the case and they are often just incredibly thoughtful and considered in their approach to others. In his book, ‘Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness’ he mentions the numerous writers who were well-known as shy and averse to face-to-face communication, but brilliantly assertive and confident when behind a typewriter.

  1. Figure out what is the best way to approach kids in ways that they are comfortable with

It might be a private conversation before the school day starts or letting them know they can email you, but kids need a variety of options to communicate with you, in ways they feel comfortable, including non-verbal options. Let them know as their teacher, you want to know what they have to say.

  1. Create a supportive class environment

One way to get students used to talking in front of others is to start a class routine where students can begin the week by contributing something they did over the weekend, such as something they learned or saw or found curious or a book they read. Structure is important, as is planning – if you give students time to prepare, they will feel more comfortable than being put on the spot. Ensure it is a supportive environment with only positive comments and feedback allowed. Consider also the student they sit next to and are placed into groups assignments with – they need to be both confident and supportive.

  1. Give students space to know that they may get braver and grow

While it’s not our job to get kids out of their box – they might be quite content letting other students take the spotlight – let them know they have space to grow and change, and just because they were considered shy once, doesn’t mean they’re destined to remain that way forever. You might be able to assign them a special class role that gives them opportunities to try new behaviours – if they’re willing to take them up.

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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