How Do You Encourage Shy Children?

shy

A couple of years ago, I experienced one of my most exciting moments as a teacher. I was playing a game with a class of three-year-olds, when a little girl named Kyla raised her 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 Kyla, this was the first time she had ever offered an idea! Al-though she’d participated happily in playing instruments, moving to music, and singing, she 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 kids who raise their hands immediately, eager to share their thoughts.  Once the ball is rolling, 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, “Kyla, do you have an idea for how we could move our arms in this dance?” during the first month or so of school, she 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.

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

How do you encourage shy children in your classroom? Here are some of my ideas:

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!”).

John Malouff, Ph.D., suggests that when asking shy children to offer ideas or suggestions, “Be patient — it may take them a while to overcome their nervousness and speak.  If the child doesn’t answer after a period of several seconds, go on pleasantly to the next child or activity.” Remember, they’re observing and listening and will contribute in their own time.

If there are several shy children in your classroom, be especially low-key when responding to children’s ideas. Some kids 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 classroom atmosphere as calm and relaxed as possible.

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.”

Remember, shy children can have a lot of great ideas to offer, if we encourage them gently to let their voices be heard. 

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

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