The behaviour question

Tom Bennett

I have a very shy child in my class. He speaks English as a second language, but rarely talks in lessons so cannot develop his speech. He is louder and more enthusiastic in the playground. He seems well liked and other children say he speaks outside. Occasionally, he answers a question in lessons, but it is just a one-word answer and he doesn't tend to expand on it. I have tried to encourage him: if he speaks in class or asks me for help, he gets a sticker. However, it doesn't seem to be successful.

What you said


Being shy isn't a fault. Being quiet in class isn't a fault. If the child doesn't want to speak, putting lots of pressure on him to do so isn't going to help. The best thing is to leave him to it. Do lots of pair talk, giving answers that way so it isn't his answer he gives. If he does put up his hand, choose him every time and smile encouragingly. But don't push it.


I would ask his parents what techniques they use at home to encourage conversation. Often it only takes finding out what interests a child. A reward system may work. Set him a small target for communication in each lesson; if he achieves it he is rewarded.

The expert view

Shy pupils are a peculiar challenge. Some teachers ignore them, on the premise that it's one less voice to deal with. Obviously, this is the opposite of the ideal, but in a challenging class it can seem a safe option.

If he is approaching selective mutism, there are certain contexts and triggers that provoke silence and others that encourage interaction. I would steer clear of setting "talk targets" because any focus on having to speak in that manner will simply pile anxiety upon anxiety. I will take a punt and suggest that he is terrified of looking stupid in front of his peers andor you. Therefore, when he is put on the spot in a formal environment, he tightens up and shuts his shell.

You do not coax the pearl out by force (actually, you can, but you have to smash the poor thing open, never to swim again), you tickle it. Ditch the targets and tell him he does not have to speak if he does not want to. And avoid any non-verbal cues that show you really want him to speak or he will still feel the same anxiety. Just give him normal tasks and get him interacting verbally with his peers, and perhaps with you in one-to-one circumstances.

By using these contexts to develop his confidence and experience, he may just grow out of his habit of not speaking. After all, like Moses, some are not born to eloquence and oratory, but that does not mean they cannot express themselves perfectly well. As long as he has a functional level of articulacy, and he is developing in other ways (writing, for example, or you can see that he talks perfectly well with his peers), then what harm is there if he does not run the role plays? The most reassuring thing about this boy is that he does speak, at home and with others.

So give him some space. Touch base with him from time to time in a verbal way to check learning and see if he is ready to engage, and let time straighten out any kinks.

Tom Bennett is author of The Behaviour Guru and Not Quite a Teacher.

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Tom Bennett

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