Shy childThe shy student isn’t hard to recognize. Typically very quiet, he may only speak with the teacher, and even then in a soft voice or tremulous tone. When asked a question, he may gaze down and give monosyllabic responses. Sometimes he will nod in place of speaking.

While many of his classmates work hard to get attention, the shy student works equally hard to avoid it. Fearful of drawing attention to himself, he prefers to blend into the background. More spectator than participant, he tends to hang back rather than dive in.

The shy student may hesitate to speak up in class because he is easily embarrassed. Reading aloud, giving oral reports, even doing show-and-tell may engender anxiety. And if he has a bad experience, he may be even more reluctant the next time.

His peers may misinterpret his shyness. They may see him as unfriendly and conclude that he doesn’t want to play with them. As a result, they may begin to avoid him. In reality, the shy child often wants to be involved with his classmates, but may lack the social skills to do this effectively.

Teachers may also misread the shy child. They may mistake his reluctance to participate for lack of understanding. They may conclude he is academically slow and avoid calling on him in class on the assumption that he doesn’t know the answer. In other cases, the teacher may conclude that the shy child is simply a serious, well-behaved student who warrants little attention. While it’s true that a shy child is often a diligent student, he often needs the teacher’s attention to give him the confidence to take risks in school and be drawn out of his shell.

Bashful From the Start

Some children are shy by temperament. Simply put, they’re born shy. Studies suggest heredity contributes to shyness more than any other personality characteristic. Children who are temperamentally shy are timid and reticent as early as 2 years old and may manifest this behavior in a variety of situations and settings.

Jerome Kagan, a psychologist, estimates that 10 percent to 15 percent of children are born with a predisposition to become shy. He concludes, however, that for these children, biology is not destiny. His research indicates that for every 10 children who inherit a tendency to shyness, eight will be shy as preschoolers, four will be shy as second graders, and two will be shy as teenagers.

That shyness is an inborn trait for some children doesn’t mean that what teachers or parents do is irrelevant. A student who is temperamentally shy inherits a predisposition to be shy. Whether that student becomes shy depends on his environment, notably the key adults and peers in his life. A child who is temperamentally shy but has a warm, supportive family, as well as understanding teachers who gently encourage him and try to draw him out, is less likely to be quiet and withdrawn and more likely to overcome his fears. In short, the right environment can empower the shy child.

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a Mercer County, New Jersey school and family psychologist. For more information, visit his website at