Supporting Shy Students

In The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley9 Comments

I remember my time at school particularly fondly. I was happy to get involved; I would volunteer to read and attempt to make wise-cracks and more in the relative safety of my group of friends. Like any teenager slouching grimly into adulthood, I was uncertain of myself, frightened of being judged.  For many students, this natural awkwardness was nothing compared to the their scale of shyness, crippling for some, that they dealt with daily. It is these students that we need to, quietly and with care, support with explicit regard.

Shy students too often get lost in the din of the crowds. There is no particular label for quiet and often industrious students who struggle socially in groups. There is no grand intervention, no code and no guidance that we deem worthy of emphasis. Too often, they sink beneath our all-too-human radar. With quiet desperation, they can cling to the sides of our lessons.

I have some experience of what it is like to be shy and to struggle in a social setting. Though I could confidently fit into everyday lessons at school, one or two experiences violently jarred with my teen sensibilities. In my English lessons, there was an annual rite of giving an individual presentation. I loathed the onset of this event. I was confident in the mix of my friendship group, but when under the glare of the spotlight I crumbled with fear. I gave dire talks on earthworms (yes, I know) and cancer (I know).

There is an all-too-common social situation. It has been labelled ‘the spotlight effect’. We naturally overestimate the attention of others towarss us; we exaggerate in our own minds our minute signs of nervousness. The spotlight is always brighter than we think. For a shy person, the glare of the light too often signals a retreat.

Children with a shy temperament can too easily be misunderstood. Classrooms are effectively the haven of the extrovert, such is the typical power of peer groups, regardless of seating arrangements or teaching methods. Worryingly, intuitive judgements of shy students can be negative. Research by Hughes and Coplan, in ‘Exploring process linking shyness and academic achievement in childhood’ (2010), found that teachers can judge shy children as less academically competent, despite their actual academic performance.

So then, we need to be more aware of our shy students and their needs, but also our hidden biases in the classroom.

If we can identify stressful situations for shy children, such as when they have a speaking and listening presentation, can we better support the arrangement of practice with a friend? I would have appreciated that support before regaling my class about the intricacies of earthworms. Rehearsals of any kind will typically mitigate the stress of the situation. It is this acute awareness of our students which we need to keep in the forefront of our minds.

Simple strategies for supporting shy students

  • Talk through with students and model physical stressors and interpret them positively. Some of our physical responses, like fast breathing, is our body readying itself for action. We need to share these positive messages about the stress of ‘performance’. We can model and be explicit about body language and eye contact in each and every interaction: group work and presentations etc.
  • as mentioned above, provide opportunities to prepare for verbal, or significant contributions in advance.
  • Take care with grouping students, allowing for particularly shy students to work with a friend.
  • Carefully select student groupings with explicit roles. We should positively challenge our more introverted and shy students at times, but we can allow for roles that allow students to work in a less extrovert role. Be watchful of loafing and/or others seizing complete control.
  • Ensure wait time for shy students (but for all students too). Time to think and formulate a response can be key in encouraging a contribution when a student struggles to speak aloud in class.
  • Scaffold questioning and target it at a range of students, or the de facto position of extrovert students gobbling up all the feedback will occur.
  • Have frequent private chats – however brief – to establish trust and regard for their potential anxieties.

Yes, many of the strategies outline above are simply good practice that we should apply with all of our students, but our shy students do need our personal spotlight, especially when many, more confident students will all too easily seize our attention.



  1. Great post and very helpful for those without experience of this area.
    I would urge caution though with two aspects if I were sharing this advice with my staff.
    1. An appearance of ‘shyness’ could have an underlying cause of depression, anxiety, PTSD that might need ‘outing’.
    2. In such a hypersensitive era – eye contact strategies have to be very open to all involved – student, parents, colleagues etc to avoid ‘misinterpretation’ and potential ‘labelling’ of the teacher by other students – which can quickly spiral out of control.

  2. Thank you Alex a beautiful post. And timely week three of schoo. Year here I’m Australia. Five students. Class of 22 painfully shy. And you guessed correctly only four corners i. The room in which to hide. Love what you wrote and I try this …my concern are the less shy ones wh become nysicallt I’ll they say if asked to do an oral. Not sure how ,any are avoiding…

  3. I think lollipop sticks are powerful tools here too: they normalise participation for everyone (and make it clear that no one is being picked on in the process). Your point about offering time to formulate a response is critical too. I didn’t know the research about judgments of shyer students – really interesting (and slightly alarming). Have you seen the Susan Cain TED talk on the power of introverts? Or read her book? I think it links quite closely to some of the strategies you’ve advocated here.

    1. Author

      Yes – big fan of Quiet. Read it a while ago. Yes – there is quite a lot of research on the judgments too – not surprising, just human, all too human.

  4. Hi Alex, I really enjoy your articles! Lots of great aspects to think about. Have you considered how the structures of school (mostly those outside of individual teacher control, sadly) have the affect of turning students who would otherwise be confident into shy and uncertain people? I experienced this myself and I saw it in fiends and family who go through school. Take the ‘bright kid’ who answers all questions proudly, who slowly get’s the message that this is ‘being a show off’ and stops answering so others have a chance… they’re on track to believing they’ll hurt their own status by speaking up = learnt shyness. Take the kid who’s heart is in one subject but is forced to go into depth on other subjects and told – implicitly and sometimes explicitly – that they are failing. What a knock to confidence even though that failure is more important to the teacher than that student = learnt shyness. Take the student who’s quick and funny but there’s no time for these jokes so they are told to ‘shut up’ and are sent to detention for disruptions = learnt shyness. I could go on. I believe allot could be improved for students (and teachers) if if the schooling system trusted teachers e.g. if a teacher could say “I’m doing a course on ‘this’, it’s at this level and anyone who is ready and interested regardless of age is welcome.” The advice you give in this post is valuable, but I can’t help feeling that it is patching up a deeper issue.

    1. Author

      I think much of what you describe actually comes down to teacher quality and approach, rather than a systematic failing. Perhaps an innate notion of compliance is systematic, but it is, like everything, in the hands of the teacher.

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