"Shy" first grader doesn't speak up in class

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  September 10, 2012 06:00 AM

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Hello,
I have a first grader who went to a private school for PreK and K but is now in a public magnet school for first grade. He is not much of a talker in class and is very shy. He has been reluctant in responding to the teachers questions in class. When the teacher asks questions in class he does not reply and tries to avoid eye contact, looks every other way except the teacher. If he does not understand the task, he will sit there instead of asking the teacher a question as how to do it. There are talkers in the class so the teacher is disciplining by telling everyone to keep quiet. He says that he is not allowed to speak in class because he will get in trouble but the teacher says she wants him to answer when she asks him something or when it is class discussion time. What should I do? Thanks

From: Natasha, Baton Rouge, LA

Dear Natasha,

First, two caveats: 1. This is first grade you're talking about. It's also a new school for him. Give him a break! Give him time to find his footing. As he gains confidence and a comfort level with all the changes, he may start to speak up.
2. Avoid calling him "shy." It can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Think of him instead as "slow to warm up."

OK, now to your question.
Kids this age tend to see the world as if it's set in concrete and there's no room for flexibility. When the teacher says, "I want everyone to be quiet or else!," what he takes in is, "I don't want to get into trouble! I can't talk!"

You need to help him understand: "There are lots of rules. One rule is not to talk in class when the teacher is talking. Another rule is, when the teacher asks you a question, the rule is to look her in the eyes and tell her the answer if you know it, or say, "I don't understand," or say, "I don't know."

It's possible that he's very rigid and will only believe these rules if he hears them from the teacher, so you may need to enlist her aid.

BTW, don't panic. Just because he is very rigid and rule-bound now does not mean he will always be this way. He may always have a tendency to be cautious but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

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3 comments so far...
  1. I seem to pick up a vibe that the switch from private to public school itself is weighing on the parent's mind?

    Posted by di September 10, 12 12:39 PM
  1. Some kids are quiet, and I wish that teachers and parents would stop MAKING them talk in class. I rarely spoke in class until I was halfway through college but guess what? I made it through school totally fine. I was TERRIFIED of being called on until I was an adult.
    My advice is leave him alone.

    Posted by siggie September 10, 12 02:38 PM
  1. One year when I was lifeguarding, one of the good young swimmers in our program started struggling because she was choking on water. When I asked her what happened, she said, "I kept swallowing water," and when I asked her why, she said, "Because we're not allowed to spit in the pool!"

    We then started explaining to the kids the difference between spitting yucky stuff into the pool, and spitting pool water back into the pool. It sounds like this kid needs a rule clarification.

    It sounds like a secondary issue is that the new environment is chaotic and full of poorly disciplined kids compared to his old one. That is a bigger issue that is a lot harder to solve, though.

    Posted by AP September 10, 12 04:25 PM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. I seem to pick up a vibe that the switch from private to public school itself is weighing on the parent's mind?

    Posted by di September 10, 12 12:39 PM
  1. Some kids are quiet, and I wish that teachers and parents would stop MAKING them talk in class. I rarely spoke in class until I was halfway through college but guess what? I made it through school totally fine. I was TERRIFIED of being called on until I was an adult.
    My advice is leave him alone.

    Posted by siggie September 10, 12 02:38 PM
  1. One year when I was lifeguarding, one of the good young swimmers in our program started struggling because she was choking on water. When I asked her what happened, she said, "I kept swallowing water," and when I asked her why, she said, "Because we're not allowed to spit in the pool!"

    We then started explaining to the kids the difference between spitting yucky stuff into the pool, and spitting pool water back into the pool. It sounds like this kid needs a rule clarification.

    It sounds like a secondary issue is that the new environment is chaotic and full of poorly disciplined kids compared to his old one. That is a bigger issue that is a lot harder to solve, though.

    Posted by AP September 10, 12 04:25 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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