The Shy Child

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Shyness is often misunderstood because it is not one emotion, but a mixture of fear, tension, apprehension and/or embarrassment. Shy children seem to lack confidence and are self-conscious especially in new surroundings or when they are the center of attention. Changes in the environment and school pressures are also factors that affect a child's demeanor. Symptoms of shyness may include gaze aversion, a soft tone of voice, and/or hesitant or trembling speech. It is noteworthy that shyness is not necessarily a negative attribute. Many shy children exhibit an ability to please and think for themselves. Being reserved can also be a worthy personality trait. It is when shyness is severe that educators need to be concerned.

Heredity, culture, and environment can each play a role in a child's shyness. If a child's family tends to be aloof and sequestered, there is a likelihood that the child will be somewhat inhibited. In addition, if the adults in a child's life constantly call attention to what others think of the child or allow him or her little autonomy, shyness may result.

The problem with a child being extremely shy is that he or she may be perceived by peers as unfriendly and disinterested. Children may avoid playing with a shy child, thus hampering his or her social development and increasing the chances of a child having low self-esteem. With few friendship or communication skills, shy children may become lonely and depressed, which can interfere with reaching their full potential. Educators can assist children, whose shyness interferes with their social development and learning, by helping them relate comfortably with others. If no assistance is provided, shyness may worsen.

It should be noted that the process of socialization takes time. In order to feel safe, shy children often stand back and watch an activity. They begin the socialization process by observing and listening to the interactions of others. When they feel comfortable they move closer. Later, they may speak to a teacher or peer, and after time begin to relate to other children.

What can educators do to facilitate the development of a shy child's social skills?

1. Create a caring relationship with the child by attempting to understand his or her thoughts, fears and other emotions. Reassure the child that all children feel inhibited at times.

2. Since a shy student may become more self-conscious when confronted with a loud voice, speak softly and clearly. Be prepared to wait patiently for a reply to a question because the child may need time to respond.

3. Be accepting of a shy child's reticence to participate. Allow the child time to adjust to a situation. This will increase his or her sense of security and self-confidence.

4. Refrain from forcing a child to participate in group activities. Instead, provide nonthreatening ways for the child to interact with peers. Sometimes pairing a quiet child with an extroverted child can produce a positive learning experience for both students.

5. Notice and comment on a child's strengths including qualities such as kindness and athletic or academic ability. If you feel the attention will embarrass the child make the compliment in private.

6. Help the child see that everyone makes mistakes and that no one is perfect. Encourage him or her to keep trying by emphasizing that making an effort is what you consider important.

7. If you label a child as "shy," your description may become a permanent characteristic of the child. Instead, say something like, "Everyone is different. Melissa is a thinker. She watches and learns about what's happening before participating."

8. Teach specific social skills through various means including role playing, and/or using dolls or puppets. Have the children practice:

  • Holding their heads up, smiling and making eye contact when they are speaking. Say, "If you look at me while you are talking, I will be able to hear what you have to say."
  • Greeting a peer with enthusiasm. For example, have the children say things like, "Hi, my name is Tommy! What's your name?"
  • Beginning a conversation by saying, "What school did you go to last year?" or "What do you like to play?"
  • Listening, smiling, and enjoying social interactions. Have them smile and say things such as, "It's fun to play this game with you!"
  • Making simple conversation about school work, sports, or television shows. Comments the children may make are: "I like reading too." "What sport do you like?" or "What's your favorite TV show?"
  • Being good listeners and not interrupting.

9. Meet with the parent or guardian. Ask the parent to reinforce the social skills listed above. Encourage the parent to help the child do things for him or herself. Brainstorm ways to increase positive peer interactions for the child so that he or she can become more outgoing and independent. Stress that the parent should not label their child "shy" or call the shyness a "problem." Instead, have the parent call the child a "thinker." Help the parent recognize that every child is different and that it's okay for a child to take time before responding or participating.

If the above measures are unsuccessful and extreme shyness and/or anxiety persist, refer the child for additional professional help.

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website []. 2/03

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