Help Shy Kids—Don't Punish Them

All children should learn how to make their voices heard. But grading them on class participation may not be the answer.


Jessica Lahey, author of the piece "Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School," is a teacher who obviously cares deeply for her students. She's absolutely right that reticent children need to be sensitively encouraged to push through their fears so they can make their voices heard when they have something to say, and so they can face the world with confidence and joy.

As others have pointed out in the comments, however, her article is primarily about shy children who fear social judgment, not introverts who simply prefer quieter environments and think before speaking. And grading shy kids based on class participation may not be the best way to help them.

Here are some alternative ideas for helping shy children:

1) Use the "Think, Pair, Share" technique. The teacher poses a question to the class and asks students to first reflect on or write down their answer, and then share it with a peer. Sometimes a shy student can find confidence through the encouragement of a single peer before sharing his idea with the larger classroom.

2) Wait before calling on students. After posing a question to the class, the teacher waits five or ten seconds before calling on students for an answer. This gives reflective kids a chance to think and shy ones time to gather their courage.

3) Use social media in the classroom. Shy children may feel more comfortable advancing their ideas in the form of an online response or blog entry. Once their written thoughts have been validated by the class and/or the teacher, they may gain the confidence to discuss them "in real life."

4) Strategize with the student. Both parents and teachers can work with a child one-on-one, offering strategies for participation -- such as offering a comment early in class, before anticipatory anxiety grows too strong.

5) Create groups for adolescents who are anxious about public speaking. In a classroom swirling with social and sexual politics, practicing public speaking can be so frightening that it becomes counter-productive. Desensitizing the fear in small, supportive settings is critical for students who are afraid of the spotlight.

All of these approaches can help achieve Lahey's aim of giving shy students the confidence to speak up for themselves. But none of this necessarily means we should grade students based on their class participation, since that effectively penalizes children for their fears. In other words, shy kids should be helped with a carrot, not a stick.

I'm also old-fashioned enough to believe that grades should assess a child's proficiency at math or science or history, not their ability to speak in front of a large group. Knowledge matters. Deep thought matters. Mastery of a subject matters -- even in a world that can't stop talking. It is not irrelevant that American schools, which value verbal confidence at least as highly as quiet study, are falling behind their international peers.

But here's an idea, recently advocated by the Montclair State University education professor Emily Klein: What about giving one grade for mastery of the material, and a separate grade for character? These character-based grades would reward students who contribute meaningfully to class discussion (not just speaking up to hear themselves talk). They would also value other personal characteristics such as empathy, courage, persistence, listening skills, and respect for others.

Shy kids are often brimming with these qualities -- to the benefit of us all. According to recent studies from the University of Michigan and San Diego State University, young people today are less empathetic, more narcissistic, and more self-centered than their predecessors. In a me-first world, shyness can be a civilizing force.

The author praises Rosa Parks for her courage in saying no to oppression. But Rosa Parks didn't change history through a rousing speech. She spoke with her actions, not her words.