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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

IEL FAQ: How Can I Help a Shy Child?

What is shyness?

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.  

What causes shyness in a young child?

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).

How can parents encourage a shy child?

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:

  • Express appreciation to your child for who she is. Shy children are often good listeners and less aggressive than others. Many spend time playing happily on their own, are close to their parents, and are loyal friends.
  • Support the child in a new situation. Stay with her and let her watch before joining in.
  • Role play with your child. Practice what he can say or do in situations that are difficult for him.
  • Arrange for one-on-one time for your child and a friendly peer.
  • Identify activities that take advantage of your child's strengths.
  • Help your child find tasks to help with when there’s a gathering of family or friends. She can show guests where to put their coats, or he can put napkins on the table.
  • Encourage him to find toys for younger children who visit or show them how to build with blocks. He may feel more confident with younger children.
  • Let your child work out some of her problems on her own, even if she is uncomfortable doing it. Express confidence in your child’s ability to cope with problems and find solutions.
  • Notice and comment when your child is successful in a social situation: “Aunt Sonia enjoyed hearing about the butterflies you saw.”

How can teachers encourage a shy child?

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:

  • Express acceptance and appreciation to the child for who she is. Compared to other children, shy children are more apt to listen to the teacher and less apt to act in an aggressive way with classmates.
  • Let the child know that you understand what it feels like to be uncomfortable around unfamiliar people: "When I started school, I remember I felt the same way. Soon you'll get used to things. I am here if you need me."
  • Let her watch what is going on around her until she decides which classmates to approach.
  • Notice if a child seems lost or uncomfortable in your classroom and step in to help.
  • Pair the shy child with a friendly, more outgoing child for specific types of play or work.
  • Use small groups and cooperative class activities to involve all children.
  • Suggest ways that a shy child’s interests or abilities can be useful to a group or another child.
  • Give a child a specific task to do with another child or group.
  • Teach social skills, such as specific ways to approach others: “Can I play with you?” “Do you like that book, too?”
  • Comment when a child is successful: “It was helpful when you suggested that your group use the balance from the science table to decide which block weighed more.”
  • Discuss your concerns with the parents of a child who continues to be unhappy or withdrawn.
  • Consider consulting with a social worker or child counselor for more specific help when shyness seems to get in the way of learning and making friends.

References

May 2009

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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.

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