Top tips for teaching shy students and introverts

Shy students can easily fall under the radar. In a busy classroom, the teacher’s attention is all too often focused on those who shout the loudest, and it can be difficult to discern how well the quieter members of the class are engaging with the subject. But discussion and interaction are valuable learning tools that can aid understanding far better than simply reading and listening. So, what’s the best way to engage with shy students in the classroom?

Introversion and shyness: what’s the difference?

On the surface it may be hard to tell the difference between an introvert and a shy student. Many people use shyness and introversion interchangeably. In fact, these are two separate and distinct personality attributes, although students may exhibit characteristics of both.

Introversion can be understood as one side of a spectrum, with extroversion on the opposite side. Everyone on the spectrum needs and enjoys some level of social interaction, but introverted individuals gain energy from quiet and solitude, and find that too much time in social situations will drain them. Extroverts are the opposite; they require stimulation and company to feel energised.

Shyness is a little different. Shy people are anxious about public situations and may worry about how people perceive them. It’s possible to be a shy student with an extrovert personality (imagine a pupil who loves to perform on stage, but suffers from stage fright), or an introvert who feels more at home in quiet situations, but is not worried about speaking up around others. Equally, the classroom will also be made up of many shy introverts and confident extroverts.

Catering for introverts in school

Teaching introverts in school and university starts with first understanding the introvert mind, and then adapting teaching methods to suit the introverts in the class. In most educational establishments, the typical teaching environment is noisy, with lots of stimulus – in other words, it’s geared up for extroverts. This can be exhausting for an introvert child, who will require a bit of ‘time out’ to effectively process the information they are digesting.

According to introversion revolutionary Susan Cain, changes need to be made to cater for the introverted child at school. As well as being the fair thing to do, it’s also well worth nurturing introvert talent; introverted students have many characteristics that make them ideally suited to academia, including the tendency to apply themselves to their study, think more deeply around a subject and pay attention to detail.

Introverts don’t require complete silence at all times in order to learn effectively. Introvert students still benefit from interaction with others, but they tend to prefer smaller groups or one-to-one conversations. Splitting up the class and letting them work together in pairs (the think-pair-share technique is a good one to employ), conducting tutorials and offering opportunities for study in a calm, quiet environment are all easy and effective ways to get the best from introverted children and young adults.

Supporting shy students in the classroom

In many ways, shyness can be more of an educational disadvantage than introversion. The shy student may avoid asking questions or volunteering answers in class because they fear the embarrassment of looking stupid or getting it wrong. Or they may simply avoid attention wherever possible, preferring to sit tight and stay quiet. If a question-and-answer format in a crowded classroom is the main form of teaching, shy students risk falling behind if they fail to grasp a subject.

Again, working in pairs and smaller groups offers a great way for shyer pupils to gain confidence, so it helps to incorporate a wider variety of teaching methods to ensure that shy students can find their voice. Schools could also consider revamping their seating arrangements to make them more welcoming and less intimidating; sitting round in a horseshoe shape may be preferable to having to stand up in front of a big class, for example.

Many children overcome their initial shyness when they get to know a new situation and feel safe. So, teachers should spend time at the beginning of the school year, conducting sessions where all the children can get to know one another. Classroom games can encourage pupils to talk about themselves and find things in common. Giving every member of class a special job to do can also help to break the ice; shy individuals could be given responsibility for handing out worksheets, for example.

Alternative teaching methods to accommodate shy students

Shyness and introversion are both common attributes; in fact, because talkative extroverts tend to get more attention, teachers may not realise just how many pupils tick one or both of these ‘quiet’ boxes. By taking time to understand the psychology behind shyness, and realising how introverted students can thrive, schools can adapt their teaching methods to support every individual and ensure that their educational approach works for everyone.

BBC Active Teacher Training videos
are a great resource for alternative approaches to teaching. The Classroom Experiment shows how techniques like writing answers down instead of raising their hands to speak can help shyer pupils to participate in class.

It’s worth noting that schools and other establishments didn’t always approach psychology in quite such an accommodating way. Into the Mind examines how medical experiments in the 20th century led to our current understanding of mental health and emotions. This series, along with the many other quality educational videos from BBC Active Video for Learning, is available to order in DVD format.