Shyness involves anxiety in social situations and reluctance to join in social interactions. It can include a child’s not speaking to others, even when asked a direct question; not taking part in games and activities; or not going into places such as the school playground unless accompanied by a parent or close friend (Malouff, 2008). Feeling shy can cause a child to be embarrassed by public attention—even good attention. Most children are shy in some situations, such as beginning a new child care program or preschool. A reserved personality is not a problem in itself. But shy behavior is a problem when it makes a child unhappy or when it keeps him from making friends and from taking part in play and other learning opportunities.
The research literature suggests that a tendency toward shyness may be genetic. Research with infants conducted at Harvard University found that 15% to 20% of newborns are quiet, vigilant, and restrained in new situations (Kagan, Snidman, & Arcus, 2006). However, about 25% of these children do not grow up as shy adults, while some adults are shy who were not so as children. A child’s environment is believed to be a major factor in whether or not a child becomes a shy adult. The tendency toward shyness can be reinforced by home conditions such as inconsistent parenting, family conflict, harsh criticism, or a dominating sibling (Henderson & Zimbardo, 2008).
Parents who accept and support their child without being overprotective help him become more comfortable in social interactions. Experiencing success in some social situations encourages a child to take part in future ones. Teasing or ridiculing a child, speaking for him, labeling a child as shy, or forcing social interaction are not helpful. But there are positive ways that parents can help:
Teachers may want to keep in mind that shy children often are nervous or anxious with new people or in new situations. They may be afraid that classmates will not like them or want them around. Pushing shy children to take part before they feel ready, labeling them as shy, teasing them, or making fun of them may make them more uncomfortable. Ignoring or overlooking shy children limits their participation and learning. There are ways that teachers can help:
Search the IEL Database for resources on or perform your own search.
The opinions, resources, and referrals provided on the IEL Web site are intended for informational purposes only and are not intended to take the place of medical or legal advice, or of other appropriate services. We encourage you to seek direct local assistance from a qualified professional if necessary before taking action.
The content of the IEL Web site does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Illinois Early Learning Project, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or the Illinois State Board of Education; nor does the mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the Illinois Early Learning Project, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or the Illinois State Board of Education.