Behaviour - Help shy pupils come out of their shells

Shyness is not a choice or a behavioural problem - children who struggle to speak up require sensitive handling and support

You are 15 and about to deliver a presentation to a classroom full of your fellow students, watched over by your teacher. Your palms are sweating, your face is flushed. Your heart rate has increased and when you look at the class it seems as though everyone is staring critically at you, waiting for you to stumble over the first paragraph. There is a tremor in your hands as you shuffle the pages of your talk, anxiously checking that they are in the right order. You wish you were invisible.

This is how shy children feel every time they are in a social situation with people they don't know intimately. I know this because I have had a lifelong battle with shyness and have dedicated myself to discovering how it operates.

Unsurprisingly, the symptoms of shyness can be at their worst, and have the most impact, when people are at school. Being shy can affect both social and academic development, preventing a person from playing a full part in school life. But can teachers actually do anything to help?

The answer is yes, and the first step is understanding shyness: it is not something you can "snap out of", as some believe.

Fear of rejection

Shyness is a state you inhabit physically as well as mentally. It can freeze you up and refuse to let you thaw out until you feel safe. And feeling safe can be the hardest thing to achieve when you're shy. But what are we shy people afraid of? Why are our autonomic nervous systems signalling that a hungry lion is about to pounce on us when in fact we're just minding our own business in the corner of a stranger's living room?

According to some experts, it could simply be genetic. Shyness is apparently just one of many temperament traits we inherit from our parents, sitting at one end of a spectrum that runs from "approach" to "withdrawal".

Think of this spectrum as a telephone wire with a number of birds sitting on it. If you're very shy, you're hanging around on the far left of the wire and staying away from the other birds, who congregate on the right. Every now and then you might chirp quietly at them, simultaneously hoping that they will ignore you and that they will chirp back. What you really want is to be hanging around with the other birds but you're afraid of them. You fear their negative evaluation and the possibility that, if you approach them, they might reject you.

Recognise the problem

The first thing that teachers should realise is that shyness is not a choice or a student acting up. It is a real problem and one that is likely to be inherited.

Next, teachers need to understand how shyness manifests. Usually, it is through social anxiety. At its most extreme, this anxiety can become a form of phobia so severe that the person cannot leave the house.

Social anxiety usually provokes a range of physical symptoms, from blushing, trembling and sweating to hyperventilating and feeling physically stiff. It induces hypervigilance, too - an exaggerated awareness of one's physical presence in social environments and a mental preoccupation with how one is being perceived; in other words, intense self-consciousness.

A sensation of liquefaction can also accompany the experience of social anxiety, meaning that your whole body feels as though it has turned to water.

Teachers need to watch for and understand symptoms such as this and to cater for shyness in the same way as they do other special educational needs.

What you can do

Beyond knowing what shy students are going through, what can teachers actually do to help them?

According to psychologist Barbara Keogh, the author of Temperament in the Classroom, if teachers have a better awareness of individual temperament styles, not only can they help their students but they can also alleviate some of their own classroom stress.

Keogh uses the example of a shy teacher who may be especially understanding of an inhibited student, whereas another teacher may be impatient with them, not appreciating why they are so reluctant to participate in class activities. The former helps the student to conquer their shyness; the latter can exacerbate it.

Another thing to bear in mind, says Keogh, is that shy and withdrawn children may encounter problems when they are faced with a programme that demands quick adaptation to different activities. Hence, it may be advisable to reframe your expectations of that pupil in those situations.

There are other things you can do, too. My shyness research and my own experience as a teacher of creative writing (and as a shy person) have given me some insights into how to manage shy students.

  • Find alternative tasks: if a shy child is grappling with intense self-consciousness, having to present or perform in front of their classmates may cause them excruciating anxiety. Giving children alternative ways to demonstrate their learning can help them to achieve better outcomes.
  • Offer social opportunities: shy children often find it very difficult to approach others in social situations - for example, in the unregulated environment outside the classroom. Offering them structured opportunities to interact in a relaxed way with their fellow students during class time, such as group projects, could help them to achieve better social interactions outside lessons.
  • Manage your expectations: teachers should try to avoid making shy students feel even more self-conscious than they already are. Trying to force them to behave like extroverts when they have inherited a shy temperament will only increase their distress.
  • Help them to understand the problem: supporting students to better understand their own temperament could enable them to feel less socially incompetent. Since the publication of my autobiography, Shy: a memoir, I have been inundated with emails from shy readers, thanking me for giving them an insight into their own behaviour and expressing relief at discovering that they are not alone with their irrational fears.

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