Getting students to participate in learning activities and discussions is challenging for many educators. Some may even say it’s like “pulling teeth.” When it comes to engaging shy students, however, it can be virtually impossible. These students will often rather listen, observe or even daydream rather than engage in large group discussions.

Despite how difficult it may be, participation is a key part of student learning. It’s a catalyst for further learning and development. It provides a way for you - the educator - to promote active learning and assess understanding. And when students speak up, they learn to express their ideas in a way that others can understand.

We recently discussed 5 Simple Ways to Support Your Shy Students. Below are five more strategies you can use to encourage shy students to open up, answer questions and share their opinions.


1. Create a Safe Learning Environment

For some shy children, they avoid engaging in learning activities or group discussions because they’re afraid to make a mistake. But creating a safe learning environment can help ease their fears and make them feel comfortable participating - even if their response is incorrect. To create an environment where these children can engage and learn, use the following tips:

  • Be predictable. Use consistent behaviors, routines, expectations and clear rules.
  • Be encouraging. Motivate students to take risks and always acknowledge their effort.
  • Be aware. Recognize when students are feeling anxious and avoid pressuring them to participate.

Once shy students feel safe from potential embarrassment or harsh criticism from you or their peers, they’re more likely to share openly during activities and discussions.

2. Use Polling Tools

There are some students who are eager to participate at every opportunity, while those who are more shy and introverted may feel uncomfortable raising their hands to give a response. One solution is to implement real-time polling tools. This allows students to text in answers anonymously and gives you an opportunity to gauge their understanding of a particular topic. More importantly, this method eliminates the fear of making a mistake and encourages every student - even the shy ones - to be more active in activities and discussions.  

3. Ask for Thumbs-Up Responses

Shy students are rarely the first to raise their hands to participate. But that doesn’t mean they don’t know the answer or have an opinion. That’s why we love this technique featured by Edutopia called “thumbs-up responses.” Replacing raised hands, this method gives everyone a moment to process the question as well as an opportunity to contribute. This also gives shy children a low-risk way to participate and allows educators to increase engagement on a broader level. 

4. Arrange Students in Small Groups

As the popular adage goes, “There is power in numbers.” The same is true for boosting engagement among shy students. Rather than calling on students individually, encourage the children to discuss the question in small groups and collaborate with one another to provide an answer. For shy children, this is a welcome alternative to speaking alone in front of a larger group, but it also gives them an opportunity to share and actively engage in activities. It’s also another way to build community among students, which can help shyer students break out of their shell.

5. Provide Alternative Ways to Contribute

While the ultimate goal is for every student to be engaged, there are times when that isn’t possible. For those students who are virtually unwilling to participate in learning discussions or activities, you must find other ways for them to contribute. Give them an important job, such as handing out materials or writing answers on the board, and recognize them for their contribution. This can help shy students build confidence and overcome any fears they may have of giving an answer or sharing their opinion.

For shy students, participating in activities and discussions can be a challenge; however, it’s a critical aspect of learning. To help, incorporate a variety of strategies designed to encourage participation, like those mentioned above. The more opportunities shy children have to engage - even in non-traditional ways - the more comfortable they’ll be participating in learning activities. As a result, you can help them overcome barriers to learning and you’ll have a broader view of their skills and level of understanding.