Helping The Shy Child Go Back To School: 4 Steps To Success
Years ago, I had a student named Zach who was very reserved.
For the first few weeks of school, he barely spoke. I was prepared for this because Zach’s parents clued me in before school started; his shyness was an ongoing struggle. His parents made it clear that, despite outward appearances, Zach was indeed taking everything in and had a lot to share.
About three weeks into the year, I happened to gather a group of kids together to play the card game ‘Uno.’
Suddenly, Zach became animated and chatty.
Whenever another child got distracted, lost track of a turn or didn’t follow the pattern of the cards… ZACH. WAS. ON. IT.
He would pipe up “It’s Tony’s turn now!” and “No, the color is blue, not red!” or “Reverse back to Sara!”
From then on, Zach was more vocal in our classroom. It seemed that once he participated in a familiar activity, his comfort level grew. While he didn’t make a 180-degree turn into the class orator, he did participate more than during those hushed first few weeks.
There are varying degrees of shyness. Like Zach, there are many children – and adults – who need time to “warm up” when in new settings or around unfamiliar faces. Others simply shut down outside of their homes, speaking almost exclusively to parents and siblings.
In more extreme cases, there are children (about 0.5-0.8% of the population) who meet the criteria for selective mutism. This condition, a type of anxiety disorder, can look willful since these children chatter away with their family, but freeze up around others. However, their behavior is not driven by defiance, but by paralyzing fear. Most of these children begin showing their silent side around during the pre-k and kinder years. While this disorder is fairly rare, statistically there is probably at least one child with selective mutism in each school. Selective mutism is often misunderstood… and therefore not treated effectively. Helping a child overcome selective mutism – and the underlying anxiety causing it – requires working with a child psychologist with knowledge of this disorder.
While your child’s shyness may not be extreme, there are steps you and your child’s teacher can take to help your child become more comfortable speaking up in school:
- Use group games (like ‘Go Fish’) that use short, predictable phrases such as “Do you have any 2’s?” This allows your child to have success and build confidence speaking in front of others in a structured situation.
- Your child’s teacher can give him/her a “heads-up” before calling on your child in class. Your child can practice the questions-and-answer set-up with the teacher beforehand. These questions should be simple and require a one- or two-word answer.
- Work with your child to use gestures, such as a thumbs-up sign, to communicate commonly-asked questions. Over time, the goal will be to use a word or phrase along with the gesture.
- If your child’s shyness persists or gets more severe, look into a referral for a child psychologist. Early intervention is key helping a child learn how to manage his/her anxiety and lead a rewarding life, both inside and outside of school.
Often, parents allow children to avoid the things that make them anxious; this actually reinforces their fears. We can encourage our children to deal with anxiety by taking small steps to allow them to experience success in the face of their fears. We can also model for our children how to manage our own stress. When they see us handling our concerns as calmly and logically as possible, they learn a great lesson. Teaching our children how to understand, manage and eventually overcome their fears is one of our most important missions as parents.