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Helping Shy Kids get the Most Out of Their School Experience

by Amy Krain Roy, PhD and Snigdha Rathor, M.A.
shy girl with school books

All teachers have had shy students in their classroom. These children are the ones who keep to themselves and quietly complete their work, often hiding from the attention of the teacher or their classmates. However, some of these children are not just shy or quiet but may have social anxiety disorder. For these students, simply going to school everyday and interacting with other children and adults makes them feel extremely anxious. They are excessively shy, have an intense fear of social and performance situations, and are concerned about humiliation or embarrassment. Anxiety may be excessive enough that anticipation of a social event may provoke a panic attack or cause intense distress.

How do teachers know if a student is suffering from social anxiety?

At times it is difficult to determine when social anxiety is excessive. A good guide to follow is to answer the four D's—disproportion, disruption, distress, and duration.

  • Disproportion—Is the stress unrealistic for the situation? Children with social anxiety disorder may feel as nervous talking to a single person as others feel when giving a speech to a room of 100 people.
  • Disruption—Is the distress interfering with daily functioning in social activities, family relationships, or in academic performance? Some socially anxious children would rather fail a test than ask the teacher a question or for help.
  • Distress—Does the child or adolescent feel a burden or extreme worry throughout the entire activity? A socially anxious child may feel so nervous that he cannot even enjoy his own birthday party.
  • Duration—Does the anxiety persist throughout the activities? Multiple activities? Does the child worry before activities? Understanding how long the anxiety lasts can help determine the severity of anxiety.

What specific behaviors should teachers look for in the classroom?

Teachers can make important observations that can help to identify a child who is suffering from social anxiety. Signs such as making inconspicuous seating choices, avoiding eye contact with teachers and peers, remaining on the side during play or activities, or refusal to eat in the school cafeteria may indicate anxiety. Unfortunately, some signs of anxiety may be confused with low functioning, oppositionality, laziness, and being distracted or uninterested. It is important to observe the child in several situations to make the appropriate distinction.

In order to alleviate their anxiety, most children with social anxiety try to actively avoid anxiety-producing situations. While this seems like an effective strategy (for the student), it often makes the situation worse. For example, Jeff, a socially anxious child, refuses to go to the blackboard when called to work out a math problem. As a result, the teacher insists that he complete the problem and tells him that the whole class will wait until he has done so. This exchange draws more attention to Jeff, which is likely to cause an increase in his anxiety since this is exactly what he is trying to avoid. Other attempts at avoidance may include speaking very softly and/or quickly when called on.

It is important to realize that teachers and parents can play a role in unwittingly fostering this avoidance. Jeff's teacher might see that he is very uncomfortable when answering questions in class and may stop calling on him to help alleviate his anxiety. As a consequence, his teacher might also lower his/her academic expectations or exclude him from small group work and partnerships. His parents may also rescue him in situations that cause discomfort (i.e. provide notes so that he does not have to attend gym class or allow him to leave school if he feels too anxious). If Jeff is allowed to avoid these situations, he will never learn to cope with them directly and his anxiety will only increase, not diminish over time. Therefore, it is important to encourage participation, not avoidance, by using some of the tips listed below.

What can be done to help students with social anxiety?

There are three components that can be targeted to decrease the social anxiety a child experiences.

  1. Situation/Environment—What situations cause anxiety? Can the situation be changed to reduce anxiety so that the student can participate?
  2. Cognitions—What is so scary about the situation? Sometimes children or adolescents have "thinking traps" where they jump to conclusions, disqualify the positive, or catastrophize the situation. It is important to discuss these ideas and help children to understand exactly why they are worried.
  3. Behavior—How does the child's behavior affect the situation? For example, if the child is avoiding a situation, does that result in future isolation which can cause a negative self-image?

Teachers should try to make these children feel safe and secure in the classroom. It is important to celebrate tiny achievements with positive reinforcements, show understanding when there are "bad" moments, and try to show that one uncomfortable moment or choice will not equate to being a "bad" kid.

When is it time to refer to mental health professionals?

Sometimes simply understanding the child's anxiety is not enough to decrease the worry. When anxiety reaches a level of disorder severity or the child or adolescent has complex symptoms or suicidal thoughts or intentions it is important to contact a mental health professional.

Amy Krain Roy, PhD, is Adjunct Associate Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Child Study Center and Associate Professor, Psychology, at Fordham University.

Updated Aug. 2012