The Shy Child in Your Class
By Eleanor Reynolds

Juanita, age three, and her mother enter the preschool. Mother says good-bye and turns to leave, but Juanita, thumb in mouth, clings to her. When her mother leaves, the teacher greets Juanita warmly, and says, “When you’re ready, you may make a picture in the art center, join the children playing house, or do something else if you prefer.” Juanita continues to suck her thumb and look down at the floor.

Juanita watches the kids for a long time. The teacher does not coax, prod, or pressure her to make a move before she’s ready. A smile from the teacher gives Juanita some reassurance. Eventually, she gains control and joins another child painting at the easel. Little by little, she gains confidence and plays with the other kids. Whenever an activity seems risky, she withdraws and stands watching, thumb in mouth.

Juanita has been in the class for almost six months and enters the same way each morning. But when her mother picks her up, Juanita tells her how much fun she had. Juanita is one of the estimated 30 to 50 percent of children who are shy.

Shyness is, above all, fear. The child fears rejection, so rather than risk criticism, he or she tries to become “perfect.” There is little room for flexibility and failure is tragic. It seems safer to observe from the sidelines rather than join the group and risk failure.

Shy children seldom cause problems for the teacher. We can unknowingly reinforce shyness by giving greater attention to more assertive kids. We may think of a certain child as shy and even refer to him or her that way. Even if that child is not truly shy, he or she may become shy just by being labeled. Avoid using the word “shy” by saying something like, “Jimmy is not ready to say hello to us. I’m sure he’ll be ready later.” Be a role model for parents; show acceptance for the child’s need to wait until ready.

How to Help

Encourage shy children in your program by balancing predictable routines that give children a sense of control and choices that encourage acceptance for children who need the freedom to be themselves. The ideal group size for any shy child is no larger than 10 and should consist of a variety of ages.

Using the problem-solving approach can give shy children more confidence and higher self-esteem. It allows children to express feelings such as anger, frustration, and resentment and encourages kids to solve their problems and conflicts by themselves with minimum teacher intervention. Even shy children can firmly say “stop” to an aggressor. The problem-solving approach sets limits respectfully, without criticism or punishment; affirms children’s self-esteem and self-confidence; and allows time for children to become comfortable. Shy children, when given time, show a great deal of progress between the ages three and five. As a teacher, you can help the shy child. The following suggestions will help.

·        Greet children warmly each day by making eye contact and smiling.


·        Comment when a child plays with a group, but avoid embarrassing or calling too much attention.


·        When you need help, or there is a special task, invite a shy child to do it even if he or she doesn’t speak up.


·        Begin circle time with a song or game that uses every child’s name. This gives each child a moment in the spotlight without being singled out and makes feeling noticed more comfortable.


·        Take pictures of children playing. Make posters and albums of their photos so they can recognize them- selves and their playmates.


·        Initiate group projects and cooperative games that can be played as a team, so shy children can contribute either skills to the group successfully.


·        Encourage role play. During group time, begin telling a story of a child who is starting school. Use the name of a real child in your class. In the story, the child may be on the school bus, playground, or in the classroom when he or she is faced with a challenge: A bigger kid accidentally bumps into him or her; someone calls him or her a silly name; the teacher asks a hard question. Ask kids to add to the story by telling the “hero” how to solve the problem. Take turns with children’s names so that over a period of several weeks, everyone gets to be a “hero.”

Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at