‘You’re like talking to a brick wall’. I probably was like talking to a brick wall – I suppose there was an element of truth to it. However, was this the right response from my teacher? And did it actually achieve anything? Well, in short – no!
Of course, it didn’t have any impact at all on improving my communication skills and reducing my shyness. It just made me feel really bad about myself. I already knew I was very shy. I thought I must be the shyest person in the world and I felt like there was something wrong with me. I didn’t need to be told about my supposed deficiencies; it was just a further hit to my self-esteem. It also highlighted to me that my shyness was obviously very visible to those around me – so I better hide myself away even more so that no-one else finds out!
How can we – as teachers – respond better to shy students?
Here are a few ideas from my own experiences as a shy student and now as a teacher:
Accepting who they are
All children and young people should feel valued in the classroom and different personalities and temperaments should be celebrated. Students obviously need to learn how to communicate effectively before going out into the world, but only if a student feels safe can they begin to work towards becoming a more confident version of themselves. Belittling them about their shyness (intentionally or otherwise) is definitely not the answer.
Developing relationships with shy students
As a shy student, it is very easy to get lost in the classroom and to feel invisible. I certainly had teachers who barely even learnt my name and who I never spoke to on a 1 to 1 basis. I think that it would make a huge difference if teachers made an effort to have 1 to 1 conversations with shy students, just to check-in and see how they are and to get to know them better. This might involve asking them to stay behind after class for a few minutes or approaching them quietly during the lesson.
Understanding shy students
It’s important to realise that shy students might not speak up if they have questions or need help. Plus, it shouldn’t be assumed that a shy student who is doing okay at school doesn’t need any support; there could be other things going on beneath the surface that can be easily missed. In some cases, students who appear shy may actually be struggling with social anxiety or other mental health issues and may need to be supported both inside and outside of school.
Involving shy students in the classroom
Do we really want a classroom where only the extroverted, more confident students feel they can speak up and answer questions? We are doing a disservice to our quiet and shy students if we gear the classroom up to be an extroverted environment and we are definitely not teaching them that they also have value. There are a number of different ways that we could make the classroom more inclusive of all personalities. When asking a question, we could allow students time to reflect first and write down their ideas. We could allow them to discuss their ideas in pairs or a small group first before sharing them verbally. We could use equipment such as small whiteboards so answers can be written down and held up rather than spoken. We could offer more reassurance and cultivate a safe ‘have a go’ culture in our classrooms – and so much more.
Helping shy students to develop their confidence
There are, of course, students who are extremely shy and may be too anxious to answer verbally in the classroom at all. In that case, it’s worth having a discussion with them about how they could work towards feeling more comfortable in the classroom and gradually develop their comfort zone. From personal experience, I know that a step as small as keeping my head up in the lesson and not hiding behind my hair would be good progress! No step is too small if it is moving things in the right direction. We advocate creating comfort zone stretch plans, but this should always be led by the student, at their pace.
I would love to know how you’ve supported shy students in your own classroom and what creative ideas you have, too! Do let me know in the comments below.