School Climate & Safety Opinion

Teaching the Quiet Child in the Classroom

By Sherry Armstrong — August 19, 2015 3 min read

There are days where I leave work and my head is filled with nothing but noise. All I can hear is the roar of student voices, garbled and (sometimes) annoying. Social is the word that defines the students. Social, instead of obnoxious, rude, or narcissistic. If you separate them they still talk, either to whomever is sitting close to them, or to their friend across the room.

The noise doesn’t really bother me. What worries me is the student who comes in alone, sits alone, never speaks, or even looks at anyone else. Some of these students are “tough guys” in disguise, but those aren’t the ones that worry me; even if they don’t have friends in one class, they have other friends in the school.

I worry about the truly quiet ones. I have always considered myself “compassionate” by not putting them on the spot, but deep down I have always thought that I am doing them a disservice by allowing their quietness to continue to be such a barrier. Students depend on teachers to help them overcome problems, and I have a tendency to ignore the quiet students while allowing the noisy ones to monopolize my time and energy.

Then I read an article by communications scholar James McCroskey that contends: “When asked what one should do to help a child that is quiet, the most frequent suggestion of the teachers with whom I have worked is to give them more speaking experiences. While this approach may be helpful to some people, it is very likely to be harmful to most. Not all quiet children are alike.”

I realized that “homegrown” remedies could prove unhelpful, and possibly harmful, so I started looking for ideas on how to actually help these students.

Renee Gilbert is a licensed clinical psychologist with some interesting ideas about working with shy students, such as giving them small jobs, or recognizing them daily in some non-threatening way.

I think about one student who honestly hid in the restroom for the first two weeks of school. I thought she was a no-show, but one day the counselor brought her to my door. She would not even come in the room. It took many attempts, days, to get her in the classroom. She only said a couple words all year except when I called on her, which I rarely did.

Seeing the pain in her eyes was more than I could stand. I spoke one-on-one with her a few times, but she answered in one-word sentences. I had other students sit in her group to try to bring her out of her shell, and although she would smile and seem to enjoy the conversations, she didn’t participate in them.

I will never know where the fear and pain came from—I will always wonder, and wish I could have done more.

Another idea that Gilbert suggests is to display the work of all your students, but especially the shy ones. This is helpful because some of the most “verbal” students are unsure of themselves.

Psychologist Jere Brophy gives this example: He “surveyed effective teachers to find out how they responded to shy students. They most commonly mentioned responses included (1) changing the social environment (e.g., seating them among friendly classmates or assigning them to a partner or small group), (2) encouraging or shaping increased responsiveness, (3) minimizing stress or embarrassment, (4) engaging shy students in special activities, and (5) involving them in frequent private talks. Conspicuously absent from these teachers’ responses was emphasis on threat or punishment.”

So encouraging research exists; I am not alone in worrying about the students who are reluctant to participate. And this affirmed my opinion that there are other ways to engage quiet students than by calling them out or putting them on the spot. As we prepare for the new school year, we must be confident that we will be able to reach those students—those “mysteries.”

Please share your approach to working with quiet students.

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Sherry Armstrong is a 9th grade English/language arts teacher in Houston, Texas. She has been in education many years and is now working on a master’s degree, with a concentration in adolescent literacy.


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