Slowly and Sideways

shy
A couple of years ago, I experienced one of my most exciting moments as a teacher. I was playing a game with a group of three-year-olds, when a little boy named Christopher raised his hand and said, “I have an idea!”

What made this moment so special for me was that in the eight months or so that I’d been teaching Christopher, this was the first time he had ever offered an idea! Although he’d participated happily in playing instruments, moving to music, and singing, he had been very reluctant to verbally share ideas. So this moment was really one to celebrate!

When we ask a group of children for ideas, beginning with  “Who can think of…” or “What’s another way we could…” or “How else could we…” and similar open-ended questions, it’s usually the same three or four children who raise their hands immediately, eager to share their thoughts.  After a while, others begin to contribute. But some children seldom or never raise their hand or speak up to offer an idea.

Whether or not we label these children as “shy,” it’s clear that they are less inclined to share their ideas with the group. The problem is that they may have lots of ideas – ideas that don’t get heard.  When a child’s ideas remain unheard, the group is poorer for it. And when that child’s creativity remains silent and unsupported, it decreases. 

So how do we encourage these children to share their ideas?

One method that almost never works – and can even make things worse – is to ask them directly, especially before they know us very well. If I had asked, “Christopher, do you have an idea for how we could move our arms in this dance?” during the first month or so of school, he probably would not have responded. Shy children hate to be put on the spot, and it can make them retreat even further from interacting with you and with the group.

I once read that cats should always be approached slowly and at an angle, rather than head-on, or they will feel threatened. Shy children are not cats, but the “slow and sideways” approach works well with them too – letting them get to know you, not staring at them or “putting them on the spot,” and allowing them to open up at a pace they feel comfortable with.

I was a shy child myself, so I particularly empathize with children like Christopher. While I always took care to smile at him and encourage him to take part in group activities, I never pressed him to respond verbally to direct questions, and avoided putting him in situations where he would be the center of attention.

Two years after that wonderful moment, Christopher is a very friendly, confident five-year-old who enjoys contributing to creative activities. I believe that one factor in his blossoming confidence is that his teachers, and all of the adults at his school, are dedicated to establishing a warm, relaxed, and gently encouraging atmosphere.

Supporting Creative Thinking:

Give shy children some time to get to know you – your voice, your pace, your personality –  before expecting them to share their ideas verbally.

In particular, give them many opportunities to see how you respond to other children’s ideas – with a smile, a kind “thank you,” and gentle, positive observations (“That was very wiggly!” “It was fun to fly like an eagle!”).

When you ask a shy child to contribute an idea, give him some time to think about it. If he doesn’t choose to respond, just go on to the next student in a relaxed way. Remember, he’s observing and listening and will contribute in his own time.

If there are several shy children in your group, be especially low-key when responding to children’s ideas. Some children may appreciate an enthusiastic “Super!” or a big high-five, but shy children may actually be afraid of the possibility of receiving this kind of attention. Keep the atmosphere as calm and relaxed as possible.

When they’re working on art projects or involved in dramatic play, many children feel shy and self-conscious if teachers are watching them. The sense of being observed can provoke anxiety and stifle creative thinking. Give children space to explore artistic and imaginative ideas on their own.

Perhaps most importantly, avoid letting these children hear you describe them as “shy” to other adults. For many children, shy behavior is a stage they will naturally grow through, unless they internalize the message that being shy is “just the way they are.”

This piece is adapted from my book “Teaching Creativity” (Whitmore Books, 2010).

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