Shyness in the Classroom [October 18]
(This article was published in The Age newspaper on October 20th 2014)
Imagine this: you are about to deliver a presentation to a classroom full of your fellow school students, watched over by your teacher. Perhaps your palms are sweating, your face slightly flushed. Perhaps your heart rate has increased. Perhaps there is a tremor in your hands as you shuffle the pages of your talk, anxiously checking that they’re in the right order.
Imagine yourself imagining that everyone in the classroom is staring critically at you, waiting for you to stumble over the first paragraph. Imagine yourself standing in front of that critical audience, wishing that you were invisible. Now imaginefeeling just like this every time you find yourself in a social situation with people you don’t know intimately, because you are shy.
I have had a lifelong battle with shyness. I know the intense distress this common temperament trait can cause for those of us born on the shy end of the spectrum, especially at school. And it is at school where shyness threatens to impact both social and academic development, preventing a person from full participation in school life. But can teachers actually do anything to help?
First, we have to understand shyness. Shyness is a state you inhabit physically as well as mentally. Shyness can freeze you over and refuse to let you thaw out until you feel safe. And feeling safe can be the hardest thing, when you’re shy. But what are we shy people afraid of? Why are our autonomic nervous systems telling us there’s a hungry lion about to pounce on us, when in fact we’re just minding our own business in the corner of someone’s balloon-strewn living room?
I have spent the last four years researching shyness for a memoir called ‘Shy’, published in June this year. According to the experts, shyness is just one of many temperament traits we might inherit from our parents. Shyness sits down one end of a spectrum from ‘approach’ to ‘withdrawal’. Picture a bird on an electricity wire. If you’re very shy you’re hanging around on the far left of the wire, staying away from the other birds. Every now and then you might chirp quietly at them, simultaneously hoping that they will ignore you and that they will chirp back. What you really want is to be hanging around with the other birds, but you’re afraid of them. You fear their negative evaluation and the possibility that, if you approach them, they might reject you.
So teachers should realize that shyness is not a choice, or a student acting up. It is a real problem and one that is likely to be inherited.
Shyness manifests as social anxiety and at its most extreme, this anxiety can become a form of phobia so severe you cannot leave the house. Social anxiety usually provokes a range of physical symptoms, from blushing, trembling, sweating, hyperventilating and feeling physically stiff. It induces hyper-vigilance, a hyper-awareness of one’s physical presence in social environments, and a mental preoccupation with how one is being perceived; in other words, intense self-consciousness. In social situations, the shy person’s body can easily become caught up in a distressing feedback loop of shame, awkwardness and discomfort.
Over years, even decades, these repeated experiences of anxiety-related distress (and the mere anticipation of these experiences) can become inscribed upon the body. For me, shyness is a kind of poison that enters my body, a toxic elixir of anxiety that eats away at my digestive system so I can only eat what I ate as a baby – comforting, squishy, easy-to-digest foods like potato, pumpkin, rice and porridge. Anything else hurts.
I also get a lump in my throat every time I feel acutely socially anxious, a lump that no amount of swallowing can remove. I have discovered this constriction is aptly called ‘globus hystericus’, but it feels like my own body IS trying to strangle me, perhaps to punish me for my foolish fears.
Finally, there is the sensation of liquefaction that can accompany the experience of social anxiety, when it seems your whole body has turned to water.
Teachers need to watch for symptoms such as this and note shyness as they would other special education needs.
But what can teachers do to help these students?
My own shyness became most acute when I spent six months in a London comprehensive school as a teenager. Transplanted from my hometown of Melbourne, Australia, I felt like an alien in that environment, and making friends was almost impossible. I simply didn’t have the skills or courage to insert myself into this new school’s social cliques. In the classroom, I was reluctant to speak up, even when I knew the answers, for fear of drawing attention to myself. Many long lunch hours were spent hiding out in the school library, reading books, avoiding social interactions, immersed in loneliness. No doubt you know children just like this in your school.
So is it possible that some of my distress could have been alleviated by my teachers? According to psychologist Barbara Keogh, the author of Temperament in the Classroom (Paul H Brookes Publishing Co, 2003), if teachers have a better awareness of individual temperament styles they can not only help their students but they can also alleviate some of their own classroom stress. Keogh uses the example of a shy teacher who may be especially understanding of a shy and inhibited child, whereas another teacher may be impatient with that child, not understanding why they are so reluctant to participate in class activities.
Another thing to bear in mind, says Keogh, is that shy and withdrawing children may have problems when they are faced with a program with many demands for quick adaptation to different activities. Hence, reframing your expectations of that child in those situations may be advisable.
There are other things you can do, too. My shyness research and my own experience as a teacher of creative writing (and as a shy person) has given me some insights into how to manage shy students.
- Find alternative tasks: If a shy child is grappling with intense self-consciousness, having to present or perform in front of their classmates may be excruciatingly anxiety inducing for them. Offering those children alternative ways to demonstrate their learning may help them to achieve better outcomes.
- Offer social opportunities Shy children often find it very difficult to approach others in social situations, for example in the free-form environment outside the classroom. Offering them structured opportunities in class time to interact in a more relaxed way with their fellow students (group projects for example) could facilitate better social interactions for them outside the classroom.
- Manage your expectations Teachers should try to avoid making shy students feel even more self-conscious than they already are. Trying to force them to behave like extroverts when they have inherited a shy temperament will only increase their distress.
- Help them understand the problem Helping students to better understand their own temperament could help them feel less socially incompetent. Since the publication of my memoir I have been inundated with emails from shy readers, thanking me for explaining their own behaviour for them, and expressing relief at the knowledge that they are not alone with their irrational fears.
Some might argue that to prepare shy children for adult life their teachers must insist they behave in non-shy ways. Gentle encouragement from empathetic teachers, though, will be much more effective than rigid insistence on confident performance in the classroom. Allowing shy students to take small ‘safe’ risks will help them to imagine their way into a less frightening world.