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'I don't feel shy when I don't feel shy!'.

Surprisingly, not a great deal of research has been carried out on shyness in classroom contexts, yet as teachers we have all seen (but perhaps not heard) the shy child trying to disappear into the background, face glowing scarlet, reluctant to speak in public or even in small group situations.

Although there is nothing wrong with shyness in itself, as it is an aspect of personality, the fact remains that school, along with many other social situations, can be torturous for shy children. Furthermore, since talk is central to learning in today's classrooms, shy children can be disadvantaged from an educational perspective. Not only are they disadvantaged when it comes to learning, but they often find it difficult to form relationships with peers and teachers, leaving them feeling socially isolated. It is thus essential for teachers to help shy children to interact comfortably in as many situations as possible.

It is noted that not all quiet children are necessarily shy (Collins 1995). There are cultural and gender factors at play that influence a person's behaviour, as well as personality/psychological factors; in some cultures it is not appropriate to speak or make eye contact in certain contexts. For these children, quietness is not necessarily related to shyness. On the other hand, some quiet children are seriously shy, and may, in fact, be suffering from 'social phobia', which is a debilitating disorder that inhibits (and often prohibits) normal social interaction. According to den Boer (1997), about 1% of children and adolescents suffer from this condition, which requires specialist treatment. Such people suffer trembling, palpitations and sweating at the thought of various social situations. In children, anxiety may be expressed as crying, tantrums, shrinking away from social situations, or freezing (den Boer 1997, p. 797).

It is also worth mentioning that many shy children are not identified as such by teachers and parents. Spooner, Evans and Santos (2005) found that many self-reported shy children (aged 10 to 12) were perceived as non-shy by their parents and teachers. It appears that these children have developed coping mechanisms, but on the inside they still feel shy, anxious and socially uncomfortable in many situations. A simple questionnaire could help identify these students.

Research shows that 'nature' rather than the 'nurture' plays the primary role in predetermining shyness in children (Jozefowicz 2003); some people are simply 'born shy'. Although this shyness may never completely go away, the sufferer can definitely learn strategies to minimise its impact. Shyness can be 'habitual', where a person is shy in many contexts (Collins 1996), or more situational or 'discrete', where shyness is experienced only in certain situations. Many of us never learn to feel comfortable in contexts such as public speaking or being on stage singing a song; this would be categorised as 'discrete' shyness.

It is important for teachers to understand the situations or 'triggers' that commonly precipitate feelings of shyness in children. Some common triggers, as reported in the literature, are discussed below.

Spooner et al. (2005) suggest that the voice of children themselves has been neglected in research on shyness. The discussion below is therefore illustrated by two children's (aged 8 and 9) reflections on shyness.

'I don't feel shy when I don't feel shy!'

Unfamiliar situations, people and topics

'I'm shy when new people come to my school, I'm shy with boys ... I'm shy with grown-ups like Arlene [the next door neighbour].'

'If it's something I don't know much about, people might think I'm not very intelligent.'

A solution to shyness that is triggered by unfamiliar or 'new' situations is to help children see the familiar aspects of 'new' situations (Carducci 2003). Help children see that they have, in fact, successfully coped on previous occasions in similar situations. Also, help children feel that they know and trust their audience. This can be done by drama, 'trust' games, discussions and the building of a 'high-trust' classroom environment.

'I'm not shy when I'm talking to my friends.'

In terms of helping children cope with unfamiliar topics, techniques such as Think-Pair-Share can help. Here, children think about the topic or question and share their thoughts with a peer before sharing with a larger group. This simple technique can help shy children build confidence before being asked to speak in public. They can test their ideas on a single person before committing them to a larger group. Allow shy children a little time to plan what they are going to say.

'It's nice when we get a chance to think about it first and organise it in our head or on paper.'

Being 'on display'

'I don't feel shy when I'm singing in the choir but I get a bit sheepish when I'm on stage because it's really embarrassing and people are just watching me.'

Being 'on display' is a common shyness trigger, shared by adults and children alike. Children often feel less self-conscious when they are in groups or pairs, are 'in role' or wearing costumes.

Fear of embarrassment or making mistakes in public

'I'm shy when I have to answer questions and read stories. I get nervous because I think the words or story will come out wrong, and it's happened before.'

We all make mistakes and get tongue-tied, and children need to realise this. You, the teacher, might occasionally 'make mistakes' and 'get tongue-tied' and model strategies for dealing with the embarrassment. It helps to talk about these feelings so that shy children do not think that they are alone or 'different'.

Building children's confidence is extremely important, and this involves starting small, in supportive environments. Give shy children speaking tasks in which they will succeed.

Fear of being laughed at

'I'm afraid people might laugh. They have laughed before if I made quite a big mistake.'

The fear of being laughed at or ridiculed is a common trigger for shyness. For this reason, it is essential to teach class members that laughter is not appropriate when someone is speaking, unless the speaker is clearly meant to be delivering an entertaining text. Another tactic that may help is getting the shy child to play comedic roles during drama so that they can learn to cope with being laughed at 'in role'. This may help them deal with it out of role.

'Drama is OK ... Well, you're just not embarrassed because people know that you're acting.'

Reading aloud

'Miss Y ... said to me to read the class a story and I read a very long book ... for about half an hour.'

This child probability didn't read for anywhere near half an hour, but it may have seemed like it to her, as she wasn't comfortable reading aloud to the class. Many children are not comfortable reading aloud to the class without an opportunity to prepare or rehearse. Choral Reading, Readers' Theatre and Shared Reading can help children build the confidence to read aloud in public. It's not usually a good idea to ask children to read difficult texts aloud in public; make sure they are of an 'easy' level, at which the child can read fluently.

Peer conflict

'Maybe if I've had a problem with friends ... especially when I'm doing group work.'

Being in conflict with peers is another situation in which children can feel hesitant to speak. This can be managed by monitoring group dynamics and being aware of what's going on in the playground.

Concluding comments

It is not always possible or desirable to take children out of situations in which they are prone to feeling shy, but helping them feel comfortable by gradually introducing them to these contexts is preferable to 'throwing them in the deep end'. Also, it is important to endeavour to build a trusting, accepting classroom environment, in which children are confident that they will not be judged or laughed at by peers.

Carducci (2003) suggests that it is important to discuss shyness triggers with children in order to help them understand and control their feelings of shyness. Being open about it can make it less debilitating. For shy children, life at school can be uncomfortable and stressful, but teachers can do much to minimise this discomfort and to help children overcome their shyness.


Carducci, B. (2003) The Shyness Breakthrough: A No Stress Plan to Help Your Child Warm Up, Open Up, and Join the Fun. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.

Collins, J. (1995) The Shy Child. London: Cassell. den Boer, J.A. (1997) 'Social phobia: Epidemiology, recognition and treatment', British Medical Journal, Vol. 315, pp. 796-800.

Jozefowicz, C. (2003) 'Once shy, always shy?', Psychology Today, Vol. 36, No. 5, p. 27.

Spooner, Evans and Santos (2005) 'Hidden shyness in children: Discrepancies between self-perceptions and the perceptions of parents and teachers', Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 4, p. 466.
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Title Annotation:a research on shyness of children
Author:Oakley, Grace
Publication:Practically Primary
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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