18th May 2012 at 01:00

The problem

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. Other pupils 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 and smile encouragingly. minnieminx

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, 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.

By using these contexts to develop his confidence and experience, he may just grow out of his habit of not speaking. As long as he has a functional level of articulacy, and he is developing in other ways, 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.

Tom Bennett is author of The Behaviour Guru and Not Quite a Teacher. Post your questions at

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