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Helping the shy student

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Picture this: you’ve just finished teaching, and the bell rings for lunch. The same six or seven students actively participated, asking and answering questions and making comments. As you walk outside you see a student who is normally shy in your class, laughing and joking around with their group of friends. How is it possible the fun and friendly student you see walking outside suddenly shuts down when the bell rings for class?

There are many students that struggle with overcoming their shyness in the classroom. Ironically, the students that have the least to say often hide the most valuable ideas and the best questions behind their shy demeanor. So how then, as a teacher, can you dig up these questions and ideas? Here are a few tips:

Smile and be aware of your body language. Students are more likely to open up and speak in class if they feel comfortable. Folded arms and a scowl can be intimidating to some students.

Compliment their work and ideas. It is important to build up confidence when interacting with students. Try using the sandwich approach when giving feedback; point out something they did correctly followed by constructive criticism, and finish by praising their work or effort. Bolstering a student’s confidence is a great way to increase their feelings of self-efficacy and competence. When a student knows that their ideas are valued and validated they are more likely to share them. Even a small note that says “Great point!” or “Solid Idea!” on a homework assignment or test can be a great confidence boost.

Ask silly or hypothetical questions. To some students, questions that have a definitive right or wrong answer carry with them unnecessary pressure. Change up the usual academic questions and ask something like “out of every historical figure that we’ve learned about, who is your favorite?” or “if you could live in the world of any book that we’ve read, which one would it be?” Fun or silly questions like these can be a great way to create a low-pressure situation and encourage participation.

Prompt students to ask questions. Many students do not want to ask questions because they are scared of how they might be perceived by their classmates. Make it apparent that asking questions is not only helpful for better understanding an idea, but it is also a sign of a great critical thinker. Inform students that they are welcome to ask questions after class.

Notice when students are passionate about something. Generally, people tend to be more willing to talk about something that interests them, and students are no exception. Behaviors such as leaning forward in their seats and making deliberate eye contact can be signs that students are excited about a topic. Being aware of a student’s body language is an important part of recognizing when they are passionate about something, or at the very least responsive to what you’re saying.

When interacting with shy students it is important to recognize that they are not “problem” students, but rather that they require a bit more coaxing to actively participate in class. Perhaps the number one thing to remember is to be patient. Students will not radically change over the course of a day, but with constant encouragement and awareness, by the end of the school year, they will be regular class participants, capable and willing to make valuable contributions to class discussions.


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