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Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

Encouraging Shy Students


The shy child is anything but a discipline problem. In fact, she is just the opposite. While many of her classmates work hard to get attention, sometimes in disruptive ways, the shy child works equally hard to avoid it. Fearful of drawing attention to herself, she prefers to blend into the background. More spectator than participant, she tends to hang back rather than dive in.

A shy child can be misinterpreted by peers, who see her as unfriendly and conclude that she doesn't want to play with them. In reality, the shy child usually wants to be involved with her classmates, but doesn't know how to begin or sustain a conversation.

Teachers too may misread the shy child, mistaking her reluctance to participate for a lack of understanding about the subject at hand. Teachers might conclude that a shy child is academically slow and, assuming that she does not know the answer, avoid calling on her in class. In other cases, teachers might conclude that the shy child is a serious, well-behaved student who needs little attention. Although it is true that a shy child often is a diligent student, she frequently needs the teacher's attention to draw her out and give her the confidence to take risks in school.


Place the shy student near the front of the room. That placement will allow you to be closer to her and to speak with her more easily. In addition, the shy student in the front of the room will be less aware of the rest of the students in the class and, therefore, might be more willing to speak up. Seat next to the shy child students who are most likely to befriend her.

Build rapport with the shy student. The more successful you are in developing a trusting relationship with her, the more likely it is that she will develop the confidence to reach out to her peers. Try to find time to do some activities that the child particularly enjoys, perhaps encouraging her to teach you a game or skill that she does well. Respond to her in a warm and nurturing manner and make sure to liberally praise her accomplishments.

Speak privately with the shy student. Shy children might need practice speaking with individuals on a one-to-one basis. Even a few conversations with her each week can improve her skill and comfort level in interacting with others. Ask the shy child about her interests or activities and use those as a basis for your conversations.

Teach the shy student some social skills. Entering social situations might be especially difficult for the shy child, who often does not know the right words to use. Take her aside and teach her some "door openers," (for example, "Do you want to be my partner?") If she is receptive, try role-playing. Impress upon her the importance of smiling and maintaining eye contact when talking to someone, and give her some idea of what she can talk about with her peers.

Put on your social director's hat. The shy child most likely wants to be involved with her classmates, but finds that keeping to herself is a less painful option. If the shy child is socially isolated, orchestrate some interactions with her peers. You might organize a group that involves the shy child. Or you might ask a couple of friendly and mature students to ask her to sit with them during lunch. If you pair up students for class projects, assign the shy child a kind and easy-going partner. You might also encourage the shy student's parents to arrange social contacts with her classmates outside of school, perhaps suggesting potential playmates.

Give the shy student a little push. You might need to nudge the shy child to participate in activities that require verbal interaction -- even if those activities are mildly anxiety-provoking -- as long as you are confident she will be successful. As an example, you might have her serve as class messenger, which requires talking with school staff. Find something about her performance to praise.

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist and chair of a child study team for the Hamilton, New Jersey Public Schools. He has written five books, including Special Kids Problem Solver and Elementary Teacher's Discipline Problem Solver.

Click to read a complete bio.