As a teacher, supporting and encouraging shy students within your classroom can sometimes be one of those ‘thoughts’ you have every good intention of focusing on. But, with everything else you have to think about, it is often an afterthought. And, more often than not, these students are so quiet in the classroom that they often fly under the radar.
It’s not about getting these students to ‘overcome’ their shyness or turning them into extroverted students. It’s about encouraging and supporting them, creating a learning environment that they feel comfortable in. They will provide you with a little more, but it takes time.
While I am not a child psychologist or an expert in this field, I will use my knowledge as a teacher and a child who was shy herself at school to provide some ideas to help support shy students within your classroom.
Ten Ideas to Encourage and Support Shy Students in your Class
It’s important to note that any of these suggestions should be an option for all students in your class.
Don’t make special exceptions for the ‘shy’ student in your class as this will bring attention to them, creating even more anxiety for them! There is often a natural tendency to want to be overly protective of shy children.
1. Build a Relationship and a Supportive Environment
- As teachers, we know that developing relationships with our students is one of the utmost important aspects of your teaching success. This is even more pertinent with shy students.
- Find out their interests, get them to bring in pictures from home.
- Work out what triggers a spark of a conversation and go with that topic.
- Be compassionate and understanding of the student’s shyness… social anxiety is a thing.
2. Provide Nonverbal Options
- Give nonverbal options to initiate a discussion.
- Small things, such as raising their hand to speak in groups, can cause a massive amount of anxiety.
- Think of a different strategy if the student has a question.
- Use our emoji self-assessment cards as a whole class process during work. This will provide those students who are shy the option to say they need some help quietly, rather than raising their hands and putting the attention on themselves.
- Another cute idea is using the red, green, and yellow cups on desks. Red means they need to talk, yellow means they are struggling, green means they are all good!
- It’s important to note that once they have used their nonverbal process, they will still need to hold a conversation with their ‘helper friend’ or the teacher. It’s still important to develop their confidence in having a conversation with someone they feel comfortable with.
3. Don’t Pressure!
- Never pressure shy students to talk or speak up and punish them for their shyness. (I was shocked at the number of websites that suggested this as a strategy to ‘help’ shy students!)
- Avoid placing shy students in a situation that might be embarrassing or overly stressful for them.
- You’ll be surprised; once shy students start to feel comfortable, they will begin to come out of the shell a little more!
- If a shy student puts up their hand or says something, smile reassuringly, making them feel comfortable, but don’t make a big deal. This will only make them feel more uncomfortable.
One strategy that worked for one of my shy students was that she carried around a pencil and post-it notes. If she had a question or a thought that she wanted to share, she would start writing her thoughts down. Once she got her ideas on paper, she sometimes felt comfortable sharing it with the whole class; other times, she whispered it to a friend, who then shared it for her. This strategy resulted in her always writing her thoughts down first and then sharing with the whole class. She could read her thoughts aloud without worrying about stumbling on her words, which provided her with enough confidence to share her ideas and thoughts with the whole class. It’s about doing what works for that particular student!
4. Use Collaborative Learning
- Assign them to work with other children in the class that are confident yet supportive.
- Think about desk placement in the classroom. Place them in groups with children they feel comfortable with and are good at including others in conversation.
5. Read Books and Hold Class Discussions
- Read books about how we are all different and unique in our own ways—creating a supportive environment for all students. Explain, just like our looks, we are all different. Some of us are outgoing and find it easier to talk, while others find it very difficult.
- Read books to the class that promotes self-confidence. Not only is this good for your shy students, but it will also benefit the entire class.
6. Make Them Feel Needed
- Play up their strengths, make them feel like a needed member in the classroom.
- If they are good at math, get them to help another student who may be struggling.
7. Involve Parents and Past Teachers
- Work with the parents. They know their kids the best!
- Ask the parents what works at home, what has worked in previous years to make their child feel supported and comfortable to speak up more.
- Talk about what worked and what didn’t work with past teachers as well.
8. Role-Play Social Situations
- Role-play social interactions and situations that may occur in the playground when you may not be there to support those shy students.
- Social stories are often an excellent way to introduce how they can ask friends to play. Use our Asking My Friends to Play – social story template.
- Teach the class social ‘door openers’ for greeting others.
9. Set Individual Goals
- We all know that goal setting is crucial in the classroom.
- Once you have developed a comfortable relationship with the student, take time to sit down and ask about their feelings and social activities they want to engage in.
- Based on one-on-one discussions, set small achievable goals for the student.
10. What About Speeches?
- This is the only suggestion that wouldn’t be open to the whole class, and it depends on your expectations of the students in your classroom.
- One year, I had an extremely shy student. We would organize the written part of the speech to be ready a week before the due date. She would practice in front of me in the mornings before school; then, she would select a couple of friends to practice it in front of during breaks. I would then select a smaller selection of students for her to do her speech in front of. I was happy with this to provide a grade. I figured it wasn’t worth throwing her in front of the whole class.
It’s important to note that just like any other student in your class, each shy student you come across will have different strengths and weaknesses.
Take notice of what works and how they are progressing. Observe their behavior and take note of different situations that make them incredibly uncomfortable. It’s often easy to see who is shy, but it’s essential to look out for what triggers them to feel uncomfortable.