Helping Shy Children in the Classroom

Shy children may be at a disadvantage in the classroom, in part due to their shyness, but also as a result of how they are perceived by their teachers. “Teachers’ attitudes and beliefs directly and indirectly influence children’s social, emotional, and academic development,” said Robert J. Coplan of the Department of Psychology at Carleton University, and lead author of a new study exploring shyness in the classroom. “Moreover, teachers’ beliefs about children’s social characteristics may influence their inferences about other child traits, such as intelligence and academic skills.”

Classroom participation, a vital part of the learning experience, is often minimal for shy children. “In younger children, shyness appears to manifest itself primarily as fear and hesitancy when encountering new people and novel situations,” said Coplan. “For older children, shyness is also expressed as embarrassment and self-consciousness in situations in which they perceive themselves as being socially evaluated.” Additionally, shy children are at increased risk for anxiety that could interfere with their academic performance and result in internalizing and decreased self-esteem. “Compared with their more boisterous, active, and aggressive counterparts, quiet children may be less disruptive to classroom functioning.” Coplan added, “Indeed, teachers may even encourage shy behaviors because they maintain order in the classroom.”

For his study, Coplan asked elementary school teachers to report their perceptions of both shy and outgoing children depicted in vignettes. “Overall, teachers reported markedly different patterns of responses and beliefs toward children who varied from overly quiet to overly talkative,” said Coplan. “Perhaps our most striking findings concerning shyness were observed with regard to teachers’ inferences about the characteristics of quiet children outside of the social realm. To begin with, teachers reported that shy/quiet children had poorer verbal skills and would perform worse academically in their class compared with exuberant and average children.”

Coplan believes that this perception could cause the children themselves to believe that they are incapable of achieving academic success. “Although teachers already appear to recognize shyness as a potential risk factor for negative consequences at school, further understanding about the development of shyness could help teachers better comprehend the possible dissonance that exists between perceived and actual intelligence and academic abilities among shy children.”

Coplan, Robert J., Kathleen Hughes, Sandra Bosacki, and Linda Krasnor-Rose. “Is Silence Golden? Elementary School Teachers’ Strategies and Beliefs regarding Hypothetical Shy/quiet and Exuberant/talkative Children.” Journal of Educational Psychology103.4 (2011): 939-51. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • heidi a

    heidi a

    December 9th, 2011 at 4:39 AM

    I was a shy child who has grown up to be a very outgoing adult. I do not feel like I was ignored in the classroom or made to feel like I could not achieve. As a matter of fact it is almost like I was held up in class as the model of behavior that the teachers wanted the other kids in my classes to emulate. I worked hard, contributed when I had to, and made good grades. All while maintaining good behavior. Kind of like a teacher’s dream. I suppose I can see how ultra shy kids might feel like they are not getting the teacher’s all, but this was never my own experience.

  • Eric Ferguson

    Eric Ferguson

    December 9th, 2011 at 11:55 PM

    I was the teachers’ pet when I was little.And I remember the teachers would be so hopeless about some of the shy children in my school.It’s almost like they have this hard set image of those children and have convinced themselves that those children are worthless and will never achieve anythin’.

    I hate that kind of an ideology and especially so ’cause a teacher is supposed to encourage those that are shy and not outgoing to grow themselves and develop.

  • Angel Peeler

    Angel Peeler

    December 10th, 2011 at 9:03 AM

    Heidi, I hear what you are saying but I was the shy child who got left behind.
    My teachers never really paid that much attention to me, I guess because I never really had that much to add to what was going on in class.
    Well I did but I never felt comfortable enough to add it.
    I happen to think that this was such a disservice to me because I never feel like I learned as much or got as far as maybe I could have because it was a lifetime of school experiences of being ignored.

  • savannah


    December 12th, 2011 at 5:20 PM

    Sad for a child to feel so inadequate over something that most of them have no control over at that early age.

  • Katherine Grainger

    Katherine Grainger

    December 12th, 2011 at 9:56 PM

    I feel some children just need time to adjust to school: it’s sudden, it’s different, and all they really need is time. It helps to have the parents there every now and then to reassure their children, and to not draw too much attention to them.

  • Alphonse Dominguez

    Alphonse Dominguez

    December 12th, 2011 at 10:57 PM

    @Katherine Grainger: My teachers constantly tried to get other kids to play with me and vice versa. Trouble was, I’m not shy. I simply do not like to be social much at all. It made me quite bitter through all of middle and high school. I can’t believe they kept it up in high school, wanting me to mix more! That’s when you stop treating them like four year olds and let them do things their way and in their own time.

  • Hannah Petersen

    Hannah Petersen

    December 15th, 2011 at 5:59 PM

    The older a child is, the less you as a teacher should interfere in this kind of thing in my opinion. They might have underlying issues that you’re not aware of beside their shyness that they prefer to overcome themselves. Always consult the parents in case they have anxiety issues too of course.

  • HueyGoffe


    December 15th, 2011 at 6:23 PM

    @Hannah Peterson–It’s better to try than not I think, and I wouldn’t call it interference when it’s for their own good. The shy ones can end up having poorer grades and lower happiness overall, says so right there. If there is a real problem, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a few minutes to talk to them and attempt to help. Teachers and parents do need to respect that some do not want to be friends with certain children as well rather than force an interaction with them.

  • Benjamin Robinson

    Benjamin Robinson

    December 15th, 2011 at 8:08 PM

    By the sounds of that teachers are playing a part in writing off the shy children from the start because it suits them. They like the quiet of the classroom but then say the children have “poorer verbal skills and would perform worse academically in their class”!

    Well Teach, that’s going to happen if you don’t encourage them to participate more for the sake of a less noisy classroom! The shy ones are getting a raw deal there. 

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