How parents can help their children overcome shyness at school

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am


My son is chronically shy and I want to find a way to get him to express himself better at school. Do you have any suggestions?

The effects of shyness can be far-reaching. In today's interactive classroom, participation is crucial to the way a child learns, and your son's shyness may be preventing him from learning effectively. There are various approaches to reducing shyness, but a uniform approach is the key to success.

Your first step is to gain a deeper understanding of your son's shyness. How does it manifest itself? Does he display shy behaviour in every environment? Are there key triggers? One way you can answer these questions is by keeping a 'shy diary', in which you log different behaviour. If your son is older, you can work on this project together. Often, the result is a realisation that shyness is linked to similar events such as meeting strangers. Once you have identified these areas, you can come up with strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with them.

As you work with your son, introduce small steps to confidence. If his tendency is to avoid greeting strangers, give him clear instructions such as 'say hello to Mrs X'. Once he has become accustomed to greeting people, allow him to interact more with them. If you are in a restaurant, you might want to get your son to place his own order or encourage him to pay in a shop. After each small step, praise him lavishly. There is the temptation to try to shield children by excusing their behaviour as being the result of shyness. The effect of this can be that children never move past it and hide behind the label. Creating opportunities that will enable your son to take his first steps to confidence without making excuses for him and focusing instead on his positive development will bring results. You could also talk confidentially to your son's teacher. The research of Professor Jere Brophy, an American educational psychologist, indicates that introverts paired with outgoing students demonstrate more confident behaviour. Your son's teacher may be open to him sitting with a more confident classmate and allowing them to do joint activities.

There is clear research to indicate that early socialisation of children results in more confident behaviour. Identify groups that your son can join. Initially, you might want to look at groups that focus on a shared activity such as swimming, as this takes the attention away from the individual and allows a gradual introduction to the social aspects of the activity. For older children, the uniformed groups (Scouts, Guides or Brownies) or religious groups provide a tight-knit group of friends and exposure to larger groups through joint activities. It is vital that children have social networks outside school, which gives them a chance to 'rebrand' themselves and move away from any established behaviour. This is particularly relevant if your son has started to think of himself as shy and is moulding his character accordingly.

Once he has established the ability to interact with others, you may want to provide him with opportunities to extend his confidence, such as public speaking or drama classes. Before taking any public speaking class, talk to your son about how everyone feels nervous before presentations and the best way to deal with this feeling is to understand as much as possible about presentation and voice techniques. Class presentations are stressful to a shy child who does not want to be the centre of attention and the confidence that comes with being familiar with public speaking techniques can ease the pressure.

The speech festival route is well travelled in Hong Kong, and parents often see this as a way of developing confidence. I would first recommend avoiding highly competitive festivals and looking for those that seek to encourage every participant. If your son is participating in a speech festival, try to practise with him so he is well equipped before he steps onstage. By shifting the focus from performance to preparation, you are ensuring that your son is confident that he has all the tools he needs to excel. You might also want to encourage him to take part in school shows - maybe first a supporting role so he gets the experience but isn't under the pressure of being in the spotlight. Once the show or festival is over, praise your son and talk about his positive experience together.

It is incredible to watch confidence developing, and the pleasure children feel when they realise they don't have to miss out through shyness is wonderful to see.

Jessica Ogilvy-Stuart is director of Brandon Learning Centre and prepares students to study abroad