Teaching shy children

Research shows that shy children frequently suffer low self-esteem. Yet, because of their docile nature, shy children are often regarded as model students. As a result, they may not get the help they need. Low self-esteem, if unchecked, can lead to serious problems in adolescence and adulthood. Shy adolescents are consistently self-deprecating, have difficulty making friends and can become increasingly withdrawn. Some research suggests that the shy adolescent’s inability to gain peer acceptance puts the child at risk for substance abuse. Childhood shyness has also been linked to social withdrawal, depression and anxiety in adulthood.

Teachers can play a critical role in spotting shyness in youngsters and in reversing the downward spiral that can result from shyness. According to Kathie C. Garbe, of the Department of Health and Physical Education at Youngstown State University in Ohio, outward signs of shyness include poor eye contact, a soft voice, blushing, avoidance of social interaction and a general failure to participate in or to sustain conversation.

Since most classroom activities involve conversation and social interaction, the shy child can find school very trying. Garbe reports, however, that there are teaching strategies which enable shy children to function more easily and less self-consciously in the classroom. Garbe recognizes that helping a shy child develop social skills and self-confidence is a delicate process, but she emphasizes that peer interaction is especially beneficial to the shy child because it can counteract low self-esteem and lead to increases in social and communication skills.

New, unfamiliar actitivites and large groups appear to be the most common cause of anxiety for shy children. Therefore, teachers can help reduce anxiety by planning activities which gradually increase the child’s ability to handle such situations.

Garbe recommmends organizing classroom activities in a progression beginning with individual tasks, followed by tasks involving partnerships and small groups, and finally leading to involvement with larger groups. Repetition and familiarization with class activities helps decrease a shy student’s anxiety.

Though most curriculum materials can be used to help children through this progression, Garbe recommends an easy exercise. First, students are given a short list of questions. After writing their answers, they are assigned partners and take turns reading them to each other. Later on, students can be arranged facing each other in two circles, one inside the other. Students each answer a question (from the list they studied with their partner) posed by the student facing them. As the outer ring rotates, the inner ring remains stationary so that each student has a new partner for every question. During the final phase in the process, the class is arranged in one large circle and one student at a time is picked to answer a question of their choice from the list. The teacher’s role is to facilitate discussion and encourage positive feedback between the group and the individual child. This technique affords the shy child an opportunity to ‘rehearse’ in the relative comfort of a partnership before having to face the large group.

Essentially, the technique provides initial familiarity with and develops mastery of the content material in a nonstressful manner while helping the shy student develop social and communication skills. Repeating this process using a variety of materials enables students to interact on an individual basis with many different classmates, increasing the likelihood that they will establish positive social relationships.

“Watering the Shrinking Violets: Teaching Shy Students” Journal of School Health Volume 60, No. 10, p. 509-510.

Published in ERN March/April 1991 Volume 4 Number 2


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