English Language Learners: How to tell difference between shyness and social withdrawal?

Teacher Helping Boy With SchoolworkMany English-Language Learners (ELLs) can seem socially withdrawn to their teachers because of their difficulties with language.  When is this behavior cause for concern?

A new study in Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools says educators should consider if and how ELLs’ behavior differs across English-speaking and native-language contexts. Are students less shy and withdrawn when they are speaking their native language?

In this study, researchers found that many ELLs who were shy in English-speaking situations were more social when speaking their native language. By contrast, the behavior of unsociable children did not vary based on whether they were speaking English or their own language.

“So far, withdrawal research with ELL children has not differentiated between shy and unsociable; therefore, the nature (and potential outcomes) of withdrawn behaviors in ELL children is unknown,” the researchers write.

The authors urge educators to try and  distinguish between shyness and unsociable behaviors. They note that while shyness is associated with poor outcomes across childhood and into adulthood, unsociability in children has not been associated with psychosocial maladaptation. Shyness refers to wariness and anxiety in novel social situations and in response to perceived social evaluation whereas unsociability is a propensity toward solitary activities.  Unsociable children may often prefer solitary activities, but will engage with peers when they choose to do so.

“Extensive research has demonstrated that children with language learning difficulties experience more behavioral issues than children who do not have these difficulties,” the researchers write. “Studying ELL children presents a unique opportunity to examine the potential relationship between withdrawn behavior and language.” 


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For the study,  71 children—34 ELLs and 37 native English speakers— and their mothers completed surveys designed by the researchers to explore the influence of language context on social behavior. The Withdrawn Behavior Scale was developed by the researchers for rating children’s withdrawn behavior.

Children completed a self-rating scale and parents completed a parent-rating scale.  The Withdrawn Behavior Scale contains 7 items on shyness, 6 items on unsociability and 5 peer-relation items.  The measures were completed in the families’ homes during one or two home visits.

All of the ELL students in the study were receiving ELL services.  As well as completing the survey, participants were administered 3 measures to describe language proficiency (Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, Expressive Vocabulary Test and Speech and Language Assessment Scale.

“The ELL children in this study demonstrated lower levels of unsociable behavior across language contexts, whereas ratings of shyness increased significantly from the native-language to English-speaking context. These findings indicate that for at least one type of withdrawal, that is, shyness, language context influences the frequency of the behavior,” the researchers write.

Unexpectedly, native English speakers in the study rated higher in shyness and unsociability than ELLs.  Researchers hypothesized that the ELLs could be from different social backgrounds because they came from families who pursued education outside their own country, “a task that would necessitate a certain level of extroversion on behalf of the parent(s),” they write.

“Although increased levels of shy behavior have been associated with negative developmental outcomes, the results of this study suggest that professionals working with children who are acquiring English as a second language use discretion before pathologizing shy behavior.”

“Effect of Language Context on Ratings of Shy and Unsociable Behaviors in English Language Learner Children,” by Andrea Ash et al., Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 2014, Volume 45, pp. 52-66.

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