Working with Shy or Withdrawn Students. ERIC Digest.
by Brophy, Jere
Among students who are (compared to their peers) inactive in the classroom,
many are well adjusted academically and socially but relatively quiet and
content to work independently. Some are problematically shy or withdrawn
in varying degrees, and a few may be headed toward schizophrenia. This
digest focuses on the middle range of such students, who are commonly described
as SHY (inhibited, lacking in confidence, socially anxious) or WITHDRAWN
(unresponsive, uncommunicative, or daydreaming). A degree of shyness is
normal whenever social expectations are new or ambiguous. Shyness begins
to emerge as a problem if it becomes not merely situational but dispositional,
so that the child is LABELED as shy. Especially if the child internalizes
this label, a generalized pattern of shyness may become established and
begin to include such additional symptoms as diffidence about entering
social situations, discomfort and inhibition in the presence of others,
exaggerated self-concern, and increasingly negative social self-concepts
(Honig, 1987; Thompson & Rudolph, 1992).
VARIETIES AND CAUSES OF SHYNESS AND WITHDRAWAL IN THE
Symptoms of shyness or withdrawal may appear as part of the student's
overall personality or as a situation-specific response to a particular
stress factor. Children are especially susceptible to self-consciousness
in social situations that make them feel conspicuous and psychologically
unprotected. Other types of social unresponsiveness may result from specific
experiences or environmental causes. Some children have not developed effective
conversational skills because their parents seldom converse with them or
respond positively to their verbal initiations, and they have not had much
opportunity to interact with peers. This circumstance may explain some
of the shyness seen in kindergarten and first grade. Children starting
school for the first time may exhibit SCHOOL PHOBIA (usually fear of the
unknown or unwillingness to be separated from the parent, rather than a
specific negative reaction to the teacher or the school). Social anxiety
can also develop as an ongoing reaction to repeated failure, mistreatment,
or rejection from adults or peers. Some students may show good peer group
adjustment and ability to interact socially with the teacher, but they
may display communication apprehension when asked to answer academic questions,
perform in public, or engage in an activity that they know will be evaluated.
Finally, many students experience at least temporary social adjustment
problems when they change schools or classes.
SUGGESTED STRATEGIES FOR COPING WITH SHY OR WITHDRAWN
Strategies for coping with shy or withdrawn students include peer involvement,
teacher interventions, and other kinds of psychological interventions.
PEER INVOLVEMENT. Several authors have suggested treating shyness
and withdrawal through peer involvement (see Rosenberg et al., 1992, for
a review). Such efforts might include involving shy students in cross-age
tutoring programs, creating opportunities for them to play in pairs with
younger children, enlisting peers as confederates to draw out withdrawn
children, and involving them in small group, cooperative classroom activities.
TEACHER INTERVENTIONS. Brophy (1995) surveyed effective teachers
to find out how they responded to shy students. The most commonly mentioned
responses included (1) changing the social environment (e.g., seating them
among friendly classmates or assigning them to a partner or small group),
(2) encouraging or shaping increased responsiveness, (3) minimizing stress
or embarrassment, (4) engaging shy students in special activities, and
(5) involving them in frequent private talks. Conspicuously absent from
these teachers' responses was emphasis on threat or punishment.
OTHER INTERVENTIONS. Blanco and Bogacki's (1988) recommendations
from school psychologists for coping with general student shyness or withdrawal
echo many of these same themes. They suggested encouraging children to
join volunteer groups or recreational organizations outside of school;
involving them frequently in small-group, cooperative interaction with
peers; using them as peer tutors; determining their peer preferences and
seating them near preferred peers; leading but not forcing them to communicate;
avoiding putting them in situations that would be embarrassing or frightening;
and assigning them to messenger roles or other tasks that require communication.
For students whose withdrawal symptoms include excessive daydreaming, researchers
suggest calling on them frequently, standing near them to ensure attention,
making sure that they get started successfully on their assignment at the
beginning of work time rather than scolding them for daydreaming, stressing
the need for attention and participation, and assigning partners to work
with them and keep them involved. The following specific teacher strategies
for coping with shy or withdrawn students are suggested by the work of
several researchers over the last two decades (Honig, 1987; McIntyre, 1989;
Thompson & Rudolph, 1992; Brophy, 1995):
*use interest inventories to determine interests of shy students, then
follow up by using these interests as bases for conversations or learning
*display their (good) artwork or assignments for others to see in the
*assign them as a partner to, or promote their friendship with, a classmate
who is popular and engages in frequent contact with peers;
*check with these students frequently if they are prone to daydreaming;
*help shy children to set social development goals and assist them by
providing training in assertiveness, initiating interactions with peers,
or other social skills;
*provide them with information needed to develop social insight (e.g.,
explaining that new students often have trouble making friends at first,
or that teasing does not necessarily mean that peers do not like you),
suggesting ways for them to initiate productive peer contacts or to respond
more effectively to peer initiations;
*provide them with a designated role that will give them something to
do and cause them to interact with others in social situations in which
they might otherwise become shy and retreat to the fringes of the group;
*teach them social "door openers" for greeting others and speaking to
them in person or on the telephone, especially assertive requests ("Can
I play, too?");
*make time to talk with them each day, even if just for a few minutes,
and listen carefully and respond specifically to what they tell you; and
*use bibliotherapy materials such as "The Shy Little Girl," a story
by P. Krasilovsky about a sad and shy girl who becomes more outgoing.
Shy children may need direct instruction in social skills, such as those
included in various social skills training programs intended for elementary
school students. For more information on such programs, including a description
of a program that included collaboration between teachers and parents,
see Sheridan, Kratochwill, and Elliott (1990).
Teachers may be able to help shy and withdrawn students considerably
by using strategies that are relatively easy to implement and well matched
to the teacher's basic role as a helpful instructor to students. These
strategies include providing self-concept support, encouragement, and opportunities
to develop confidence and comfort in the classroom to shy and inhibited
students, as well as closer monitoring, improved nonverbal communication,
environmental engineering, and instructive suggestions or demands for improved
concentration designed to maintain the attention of students prone to withdrawal
or daydreaming. Most teachers seem to develop an intuitive understanding
of some of the needs of shy or withdrawn students, but many could meet
these needs more effectively by systematically applying the principles
and strategies highlighted here.
This digest was adapted from: Brophy, Jere. (1996). Teaching Problem
Students. New York, Guilford. Adapted with permission of the author.
Blanco, R., and D. Bogacki. (1988). PRESCRIPTIONS FOR
CHILDREN WITH LEARNING AND ADJUSTMENT PROBLEMS: A CONSULTANT'S DESK
REFERENCE (3rd ed.). Springfield, IL:
Charles C. Thomas. Brophy, J. (1995). ELEMENTARY TEACHERS' PERCEPTIONS
OF AND REPORTED STRATEGIES FOR COPING WITH TWELVE TYPES OF PROBLEM STUDENTS.
East Lansing, MI: Institute for
Research on Teaching, Michigan State University. ED 389 390.
Honig, A. (1987). The Shy Child. YOUNG CHILDREN 42(4): 54-64. EJ 358
395. Kemple, Kristen M. (1995). Shyness and Self-Esteem in Early Childhood.
JOURNAL OF HUMANISTIC EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT 33(4): 173-82. EJ 509 552.
McIntyre, T. (1989). A RESOURCE BOOK FOR REMEDIATING COMMON BEHAVIOR
AND LEARNING PROBLEMS. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Rosenberg, M., R. Wilson, L. Maheady, and P. Sindelar.(1992). EDUCATING
STUDENTS WITH BEHAVIOR DISORDERS. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Sheridan, S., T. Kratochwill, and S. Elliott. (1990). Behavioral Consultation
with Parents and Teachers: Delivering Treatment for Socially Withdrawn
Children at Home and School. SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGY REVIEW 19(1): 33-52.
Thompson, C., and L. Rudolph. (1992). COUNSELING CHILDREN (3rd ed.).
Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.