Search form

How Can Teachers Help Shy Students?

Shyness expert Lynne Kelly recently talked to Education World about how classroom teachers can better understand and help shy students. Included: Eight tips for helping students overcome shyness.

Johnny and Suzie both know the answers to their teacher's questions, but they never raise their hands in class to answer them. They score high on the state's standardized tests but rarely participate in classroom discussion, regardless of the subject. They are both shy students and both hide behind their anxiety and fear of talking aloud in the classroom.

Studies have shown that shy students are considered less competent. Although shyness is not related to intelligence, shyness affects a student's overall educational experience negatively. Shyness becomes an important issue in the classroom when students are evaluated, in part, on their classroom participation. In fact, research indicates that shy students who attend college will have significantly lower grade-point averages than students who do not suffer from shyness will.

Drawing Out the Shy Student: Tips from Lynne Kelly

* Provide models of effective communication behavior through demonstrations or videotape. Point out to students when good communication behaviors have occurred and why they are good behaviors. This should be done for all students. Do not single out shy students or label anyone as shy.

* Teach effective communication skills. If you want students to stand up and give speeches, you need to explain how to do that. Don't assume students know what to do.

* Provide structure for communication assignments, rather than leaving them wide open. If you assign an oral report on a topic, give students a format to follow so some of the ambiguity (hence threat) is removed.

* Reward students for attempts at communicating. Don't pick them apart for being wrong or unclear, but reinforce their good behaviors.

* When asking difficult questions or questions that have no right answers, ask the question and give everyone a few minutes to write an answer. Students are more apt to offer their answers if they have time to think about them first.

* Create a classroom environment that supports all students. Never make fun of students. Don't put students on the spot and keep them there while everyone watches them squirm. Have individual conferences with students to get to know them and find out about them as communicators.

* Have students write papers in which they discuss their strengths and weaknesses as communicators. Do not ask them to read these or share them with peers.

* Help students set goals for improving as communicators. Goals should be small and realistic. Talk to students privately: "Tommy, why don't you try to ask or answer one question in class tomorrow?" Teach Tommy how to prepare to participate in class -- for example, have homework done, make notes of questions while doing homework, etc.

Lynne Kelly, a professor of communication at the University of Hartford, is among the leading national experts on shyness and other communication disorders. She recently talked to Education World about how classroom teachers can better understand and help shy students.

Kelly's current research interests include the nature and treatment of shyness and speech anxiety and computer-mediated communication and relationships. She teaches courses in organizational and interpersonal communication, has co-authored four books, and has published or presented more than 100 papers.

Education World: Can you describe the primary reasons for shyness?

Lynne Kelly: It depends on whether you are talking about occasional, situational shyness or shyness that is more chronic. I'm assuming you are talking about kids who are basically shy much of the time. If so, causes are the fundamental two: nature and nurture --in other words, heredity and environment.

There is evidence that shyness is an inherited trait, so some people are born with a genetic predisposition for shyness. Does that mean they will be shy? Not necessarily. That's where environment comes into play. If kids have good models, such as parents, teachers, or other significant adults who model effective communication, they are less likely to develop into shy people. Furthermore, if kids are not negatively reinforced for talking, they are less likely to develop into shy people.

EW: Is there anything new in the field?

Kelly: There is increasing emphasis on the genetic causes of shyness and communication anxiety in general. There is substantial debate over whether anxiety about communication is inherited and whether we can help people much, if at all. Communication Education, devoted a special issue to this debate. (Vol. 49, No.1, January 2000)

The other thing that is new during the past decade is the technique of visualization, developed by Joe Ayres and Tim Hopf at Washington State University. The technique is intended for public speaking anxiety, not generalized communication anxiety or shyness, however. It could be adapted for use in helping students who are afraid to speak out in class in general, but to my knowledge it has not been used that way.

EW: New drugs for treating shyness are available. Could such drugs be used by kids? Do any studies compare the effectiveness of drugs with other strategies?

Kelly: Communication teachers and scholars do not use drugs to treat shyness, naturally, because we are not qualified to do so. Therefore, in the communication literature, there is no discussion of such drugs or their effectiveness. The only thing I know about this is what I see on TV news shows, which talk about how drugs are being used to treat the most extreme forms of social anxiety, such as people who are socially phobic.

You would have to search the psychology journals to see if there is anything out there on the effectiveness of drug therapy. I am very opposed to the use of drugs except in the most extreme cases. I still believe people need to learn effective communication skills!

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World