5 Tips To Help Shy Teens Engage More At School

Mar 13, 2017

My daughters are anything but shy.

They’re comfortable striking up a chit-chat with just about anyone and aren’t afraid to jump right into the mix and contribute to a conversation.

This isn’t necessarily the case for everyone, including my kids whom I’ve worked with as a youth program facilitator. Yes, my kids. Be it one day, one week, four weeks, eight weeks or an entire school year, the students that I work with become my kids. I’m fully invested not only in their success within the program, but their development in life.

Witnessing a once painfully shy teen become comfortable in their skin is like watching a flower bloom. They go from barely speaking and making eye contact, to raising their hands and offering their two cents, venturing into the territory of leadership, and connecting with their peers.

I once had a student in a weekend program who was so shy she covered her mouth and the majority of her face every time she spoke. I would often have to kindly request that she remove her hands, sometimes even gently holding them in mine, so that she would communicate without the presence of a physical barrier between us. After a month or so of getting to know her via the use of writing assignments and other activities, we finally hit a breakthrough.

Every week we let a student pick a line dance for the entire class to learn. I noticed that she seemed to brighten up every time this activity came around.

When her turn came, she shined—so much so that the other students noticed and praised her for it.

From that moment on, we watched her grow more confident and engaged in our group. It wasn’t always easy, but more importantly, we had cultivated a space for her to blossom.

So how do we help shy teens engage more at school?

  1. Learn and understand the source of their shyness. Every shy kid isn’t shy for the same reason. Give more focus to the human being than the actual trait itself. Sometimes it’s helpful not to name the trait but to point out the actions tied to the trait and inquire about them.

    Ex: “Hey Trevor, you seem to be a really great listener. Most people talk so much that they forget to listen to others. How’d you become so good at listening so intently?”

  2. Don’t be an ignoramus. If it was easy for them to speak up or be more outgoing, they’d do it. Don’t tell them what they should or need to do; no one likes that. Instead inquire about a change or self-improvement they’d like to see happen in their lives and work with them to create a map to success. Be sure to be realistic about some of the challenges that they may encounter.

    Ex: If they’d like to see themselves initiate conversations more, find out what they enjoy talking about and identify environments, events or spaces that would nurture those kinds of conversations. This is just a starting point but a good one. Encourage them to consider the kinds of challenges or habits they’re likely to be faced with as they venture out of their comfort zone, and identify ways that they can work through it in those moments.

  3. Create opportunities that highlight their strengths. Understanding their shyness and working to not be an ignoramus are just two steps of the process. Committing to creatively finding ways to focus on their strengths is crucial. Are they great at writing? Get a joint writing project going that will eventually lead to a family presentation, or find a program that includes writing and oral presentations. Check out the programs before enrolling your teen; it’s important to see if the environment will serve as a truly supportive one for them.

  4. Speaking of support, carefully weave a supportive web. Know an adult who was once shy or still works to overcome it? See if they’d be willing to mentor your teen. Get everyone from teachers to family members to friends involved in removing crutches that enable the shyness and creating opportunities for growth.

  5. Ignite Innovation. Hands down, the lunchroom is the most intimidating space for a shy kid. There are app developers who understand the needs of different personality types. For example, the Sit With Us app is designed for the very purpose of encouraging kindness and inclusion in schools by creating an environment that ensures no one eats alone. This app has the potential to become a shy kid’s secret weapon to connecting with peers.