Supporting shy and socially anxious students to become the best presenters they can be

Age 22, I am due to present my dissertation at University. I feel sick with anxiety. Thankfully, this is not an assessed part of the course and I am given an exemption.

As a shy, socially anxious student, presentations had always been a nightmare for me, and it wasn’t until my postgraduate studies that I finally had a positive presentation experience. 

I gave a presentation as part of the assessment for one of my modules, but this time I decided to seek out help from the Learning Support team at my college. I really cared about doing well and I felt very anxious about the presentation; I knew I needed some support to not only get through it, but also to do a good job. 

I had several sessions with a lovely lady. We talked everything through, I practised with her – we even practised in the venue where the actual presentation was going to be held – and she didn’t let me get away with anything! I learned to make eye contact with her whilst speaking. The outcome of this was that I achieved a first for my presentation, I confidently spoke in front of a group for the first time (at the age of 25!) and made eye contact with my audience.  I even had feedback saying that it was one of the best Q&As they had seen!

As I reflect back on this, I wonder: what if I’d had an experience like this 10 years earlier? 15 years earlier? Support like this for shy students obviously demands more time and effort from teachers, but I know from personal experience that it could change everything for the child… and no doubt would also be incredibly rewarding for the teacher!

Extra support similar to what I have described may be suitable for some students and children, but it’s also important to take it on a case by case basis and consider how comfort zone stretching works. As you push yourself, your comfort zone will gradually expand, but it’s necessary to take these steps slowly. If you take a huge stretch, it can backfire and cause increased anxiety in the future. And, of course, what counts as a tiny, small, medium, big or huge step is something entirely personal to the student/child themselves.

For some students, it might be more appropriate to allow presentations in front of a smaller group or even in front of the teacher alone. Maybe different methods of assessment could be considered. Maybe they could give a shorter assessment. Maybe they could speak from their chair instead of standing in front of the class. Maybe they could prepare the presentation themselves, but ask a friend to read it out for them. The important thing is that the child has achieved something and has taken a step towards facing their fears in a way that doesn’t create more anxiety for future scenarios.

You only need to look at the recent tragedy of Natasha Abrahart – a University student who took her own life on the day she was due to give a presentation – to understand why these adjustments are essential for a student struggling with social anxiety. A little bit of support, and a willingness to walk alongside students as they fight anxiety and develop their confidence, can go a very long way. 

Author

  • Grace

    I have been shy for as long as I can remember, becoming gradually more and more shy during my teenage years and experiencing social anxiety on a more severe level when I was in sixth form. It was difficult for me to make the transition from school into the real world and I wasn’t able to go to university or get a job for a while. Things starting changing for me when I decided to study music: a subject I loved! As I began challenging myself and putting myself ‘out there’ more, feelings of anxiety naturally lessened over time and my comfort zone expanded. I still consider myself shy, but I can cope with a lot more these days and I don’t feel stuck like I used to. I enjoy writing about my experiences – especially from school when my anxiety was at its worst. I had little support with my mental health when I was a teenager and I didn’t feel I could reach out for help. I don’t want any more young people to struggle in the same way that I did. That’s why, now, as a teacher, I feel passionate about helping shy students know that they aren’t alone, and raising awareness of the difficulties that quieter students face in education so that they can get the support -and adaptations in class- that they deserve.

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