4 Tips to Help Shy Kids at School

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There's a lot of trust involved in sending your child to school. You count on your child's teacher to protect him or her from bullies, to reinforce prosocial behaviours, and to establish a positive attitude toward learning. The first day of kindergarten can be a difficult one for kids and their parents, especially if they haven't been involved with a preschool or a daycare! The move from kindergarten to Grade 1 can be a challenge as well, as the schedule changes from a half to a full day of academics. Starting school can be especially anxiety-provoking for shy children, for whom the large group of peers and demands for verbal participation can be daunting. What helps shy kids cope in Grade 1? It turns out that their relationship with their teacher can be an important factor.

Kimblerley Arbeau and her colleagues examined the relationships among shyness, the teacher-child relationship, and adjustment in a study published in a recent issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Development. The researchers gathered information from mothers in the fall, from teachers in the winter (once they had gotten to know the students better) and in June, and from the students at the end of the school year. Kids whose parents described them as shy were rated by teachers as being more anxious and more likely to be excluded from activities with their classmates. Shy boys also reported feelings of loneliness. The relationship between children and their teachers played a significant role in the impact of shyness.

Shy kids who did not have a warm, affectionate relationship with their teacher reported more avoidance of school, and their teachers indicated higher levels of anxiety and social withdrawal; shy children who were more dependent or 'clingy' with their teachers had an even harder time, with more avoidance and rejection than other children. The good news: Arbeau and her colleagues found that shy kids who had a close relationship with their teachers were protected against the negative impact of their shyness. The same kind of thing has been found in studies on parent-child relationships; a secure bond with a parent can protect kids against the impact of stress and can help them to be resilient in difficult situations.

The bottom line: a warm relationship between your shy child and his or her teacher may have significant positive effects on his or her peer relationships and adjustment at school. A positive connection with a school staff member has also been found to be helpful in the transition from Grade 6 to middle school. The warm relationship is also an element of a teacher's style that can have a positive impact on the behaviour of disruptive kids. What can parents do to encourage a positive, warm child-teacher bond? Here are some ideas:

  1. Nurture the parent-teacher relationship. Researchers have found that the interactions between parents and teachers can have an effect on kids' school performance. It stands to reason that teachers who have a positive relationship with the parent may be more likely to have a good relationship with the child. I wrote about this issue last April, with some suggestions for parents.
  2. Plan ahead. Meet with the teacher before the first day of school, if possible, or early in the school year. If the teacher is aware of your child's shyness, he or she can make an effort to address it by structuring group activities with appropriate classmates, or by providing other kinds of support.
  3. Reduce anxiety. You may not be able to help your child to feel completely comfortable in the classroom, but you can give them tools to help them to cope. There are a number of children's books about school fears and shyness that can encourage conversation with your child (Franklin Goes To School is a good one that even has a game to go with it). My favourite resource for young, anxious kids is Taming Worry Dragons.
  4. Exercise & extracurriculars. Exercise is often recommended in the treatment of anxiety. Team sports may be particularly helpful for shy kids; a recent study found that, after participating in team sports for a year, the social anxiety of shy kids was no higher than anyone else's!

You can find Arbeau's study here.

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