4 ways to help shy kids “break out”

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It was just safer to be quiet.

via teachhub.com

As a freshman in high school I was the prototypical geek, weighing 92-lbs with the glasses to match. I earned A’s, did all of my work and was never a problem student. But I was silent–and I mean as silent as a stone–in every class. My silence was often incorrectly attributed to being shy. In truth, it was masking much more. I hid in the back of my classes.

When asked a question, my standard response was, “I don’t know,” even if I did know. I was insecure and suffering emotionally.

One teacher saw me as intelligent but failed to see who I was. In class he called on me whenever another student answered a question incorrectly. “Reed, can you help explain to John why his answer is wrong?”

Despite knowing the answer, I’d purposely fumble the answer or mumble, “I don’t know.” No way on Earth was I going to correct another student.

As the teacher pushed further for the answer, my heart would race, my palms would become clammy, and my breathing would become shallow. Fairly or unfairly, I grew to hate that teacher. What a jerk.

It was simply safer to be quiet.

Fortunately, most of my teachers supported and nurtured me. In essence, they cracked my outer shell to expose my strengths. They slowly built me up but never let me off the hook.

How’d they do it? 

  1. My math teacher always gave me a heads-up before asking me to go to the board. “Reed, I see you got number 5 right. Show me how you did it….Great! I’m going to have you answer that one on the board.” Even though math was my worst—and least favorite class—I became increasingly comfortable.
  2. In health class, a class that relied heavily on class discussion, my teacher always allowed us to pass on answering any question. In a class where personal matters were often discussed (and I wasn’t ready to share anything about my personal life), this was vital. By allowing us to opt-out, he created a safe and more welcoming environment.
  3. My English teacher’s constant use of think-pair-share also allowed safe participation. Instead of sharing with the entire class, I was given time to develop my own answers and discuss them with a classmate whom I was comfortable with sharing. Getting over this initial hurdle allowed me to become more comfortable in the whole class sharing portion.
  4. Honestly, I don’t remember any of my teachers making use of wait time, but perhaps no instructional strategy is more important than making use of wait time when trying to encourage all students—especially, shy students and/or those lacking confidence in themselves or their abilities.

While it didn’t happen overnight, I became more comfortable in who I was, and by my senior year, I became a school leader. None of this would have been possible had my teachers not taken the time to get to know me. They built up my confidence slowly. They worked with what I did well and expanded on it.

They believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself.

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Reed Gillespie

Reed is a longtime educator and coach, who is passionate about progressive learning and 21st-century assessment practices. Read more of his work here. "I'm a co-moderator of #VAchat, a Twitter conversation for Virginia (and non-Virginian) educators that meets Monday's at 8 ET. Most importantly, I'm a father of four wonderful children and a couple grandchildren. In my free time, I enjoy cooking, reading, sports and, of course, spending time with family."
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