This blog intends to help caretakers understand shy children more deeply, and offer practical strategies for communicating with others, building friendships, and establishing important social skills.
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Angelo is a slow-to-warm second-grade student who recently moved to a new school.
At drop-off, he silently enters the classroom.
In class, he quietly listens during the lessons.
At recess, he plays alone in the sandbox.
His shyness is often misunderstood.
His parents scold him: “Angelo! Stop being rude and say hello to your teacher!”
His teacher writes in his report card: “Angelo must not be listening during the lessons because he doesn’t answer questions or speak during class discussions.”
His classmates think: “Angelo must not like us because he always plays by himself.”
But, underneath his shyness, silence, and solitude:
- Angelo loves to be alone.
- Angelo is hesitant towards talking to new people.
- Angelo’s family praises his quietness.
Angelo is like many shy children – deeply misunderstood and in need of more tools to build important social skills.
Why Your Child Might Be Shy
Shy children are often misunderstood. Their shyness can be perceived as “bad”, or “rude.” But, being shy is not bad! Careful, cautious, and slow-to-warm kids are often shy for a number of valid reasons.
Here are three common reasons children are shy:
Reason 1: It’s Their Temperament
Shyness can be linked to a child’s temperament. Some children are born with a more slow-to-warm personality; they’re more naturally introverted and reserved.
Reason 2: It’s Protective
Some children are shy as a way of protecting themselves from uncertainty in new environments, situations or people. If a child has experienced negative social interactions or lacks exposure to social situations, shyness can be a way of keeping children safe until they can build trust with others.
Reason 3: It’s Learned
Children learn behaviours by observing those around them, particularly their parents or caregivers. If a child’s primary caregivers are shy or socially cautious, the child might model this behaviour and develop shyness themselves. In some cultures or families, shyness is praised or encouraged, which can also have an influence on children.
How to Encourage Communication
Shy children are often seen as “difficult”. Speaking up, answering questions, or asking for help can feel incredibly overwhelming for shy kids. This is challenging for parents and teachers because it can make it difficult to know what shy children are capable of or what they need.
- Teachers might confuse their hesitancy for rudeness.
- Parents might misunderstand their silence as opposition.
- Classmates might mistake their shyness for aloofness.
As challenging as it can be, shy children have a lot to say! They just need more time, opportunities, or help to open up.
Here are three practical ways to encourage shy children to express themselves.
1. Get on Their Level
Use direct eye contact and avoid crossing your arms or having an angry posture to signal to your child that you are listening. Putting away other distractions or separating yourself from others can help facilitate a more comfortable environment for your child to speak.
2. Ask Specific Questions
When you want to encourage a shy child to express themselves, avoid using “yes” or “no” questions. Instead, try shifting your questions to offer more opportunities for them to speak.
Instead of: “Do you want me to walk you to your classroom today?”
Try this: “Is there anything you need from me today during drop off?”
3. Use Storytelling
To encourage our shy kids to speak, it’s important to validate their experience. Stories are a really powerful way to make kids feel seen. When kids feel like you get them, it can promote trust and better communication.
“Your older brother used to be afraid to talk to other kids because he didn’t know what to say. We practised a few things he could say, so he knew exactly what to say to the other kids when he wanted to play with them.”
More than anything, shy children need our patience and time. This is the greatest gift you can give a child who struggles to express themselves. Allow them to move at their own pace.
Build Their Confidence and Resilience
Shy children often struggle to feel confident and comfortable making friends, talking to their teachers, or speaking up in class. There are a number of ways parents and other caretakers can help instil confidence.
Here are five ways to instil confidence in shy children.
1. Encourage Tiny Moments of Independence
Provide your child with small opportunities to make decisions or solve problems on their own, so they can build confidence in their abilities.
Example: “It looks like we’ve lost one of your mittens. Let’s go to the teacher together, and you can ask her if she might know where it is.”
2. Respect Their Pace
Following your child’s lead and respecting their pace can build their confidence.
Example. “I’m hearing you say you don’t want to go to Sarah’s for a playdate today. I wonder if it might feel better if we invited her to join us at the park instead?”
3. Take a Step Back
It might be tempting to step in and speak on behalf of your shy child, but sometimes it’s best to give them some space.
Example: “We can stand by the swing and wait, or you can ask the boy on the swing for a turn when he’s done. It’s your choice!”
4. Recognize Their Strengths
Notice and share the qualities your child possesses to affirm their abilities and boost their self-esteem.
Example: “Your teacher said you answered the trivia questions today and spoke up in front of the whole class. That was so brave of you!”
5. Celebrate Small Achievements
Celebrating progress helps them build a sense of accomplishment and boost their confidence.
Example: “Even though you were scared, you sat with one of the other students on the bus.”
Helping Your Child Navigate Social Challenges at School
A school environment is filled with social situations. This can feel especially overwhelming for shy children. They often struggle with social challenges, such as:
- Initiating conversations with peers or teachers.
- Attending social events (e.g. birthday parties).
- Asking to join a group, game, or activity.
- Speaking in class.
- Asking for help.
This can make school a very frightening and isolating place to be for shy children. For this reason, it can help shy children to practise social skills at home.
Role play offers your child a consequence-free, playful, safe, and empowering environment to practise solving social challenges.
Here are six steps for role-playing social situations with shy children.
Step 1: Set Up the Scene
Determine if you’re in the classroom, on the playground, or at a social event, and “set the stage” for the role play.
Step 2: Invite Your Child to Join
Tell your child about your imaginary world, and invite them to watch or play along. You can start by playing the role of a shy child. Offer different roles for your child if they want to play along.
Step 3: Set Up a Challenge
Introduce a social challenge that will resonate with your shy child. Turn to your child to explain the situation to them in an age-appropriate way.
Example: “I really want to play pass with the other kids, but I’m feeling too nervous to ask.”
Step 4: Invite Them to Come Up With a Solution
Turn to your child for the answer or collaborate to come up with a solution. Give your child some space to answer. Role-play the scenario to model the solution to your child.
Example: “I want to go to play with the other kids because I love soccer, and I know it will be so much fun. What do you think I should do?”
Step 5: Role-play the Solution
Act out the solution so your child can see and hear the way you navigate the social problem.
Example: “Here’s my plan: I’m going to take a deep breath, and then go up to the girl with the ponytail over there and ask her if I can play pass.”
Step 6: Switch the Roles
After your child has had a chance to see you act out the solution to a social problem, invite them to switch roles, so they can have a turn acting as the “shy child” during the role play.
After you’ve role-played this a few times, make sure to notice your child’s progress to help boost their confidence!
Shyness Is Not Bad
Every child is unique and warms up to new people and places at their own pace.
Helping your shy make social skills at school, can start at home with your love, patience and support. Applying the strategies from this blog can help improve your child’s social skills, so they can make friends and nurture their relationship with you!
For more support, check out The School Toolkit, which includes over ten worksheets to help your child navigate friendships, the school environment and routine, tough separations and more!