Assumptions can be dangerous.
When I was six, I didn’t think much of the fact that I was placed in the reading group with the yellow book rather than the group with the red book. No one told me that one group was slightly more accelerated than the other. All I knew was that one day my teacher told me I was going to change groups, and I had a whole lot of work to do in order to catch up.
Years later my mom explained that I had been placed in the lower reading group. Apparently I kept telling my parents, “This is so easy!” So my mom went in and spoke with the teacher, who responded by moving me to the more accelerated group. Perhaps I’d botched a diagnostic assessment. But my mom’s feeling was that my teacher mistook shyness for a lack of comprehension.
My second grade teacher also divided our class into reading groups. One seemed to consist of the noisiest, most boisterous kids in my class. They decided to call their group “The Roaring Lions.” I got stuck with a group of quiet girls who decided to call our group “The Seashells.” I was devastated. I was seven years old, and I understood my teacher’s rationale for these reading groups. I couldn’t be a part of the other reading group because I was shy.
Looking back, I realize that I have probably made similar assumptions about my own students. This is not to say that we can never group students according to reading level or personality, but we will have to think carefully about the impact of our choices on our students.
Thankfully, many shy readers are able to demonstrate their abilities in other ways. But the question remains: how much damage is done when adults make such assumptions about children? And why is a quiet temperament deemed to be so detrimental to a child’s development?
Perhaps rather than viewing “shyness” as a deficit that needs to be “fixed”, we might explore the positive qualities that a quiet child possesses. Parents may be in a better position to help educators understand their child’s strengths. Is your child a deep thinker? Is she or he particularly sensitive to others? Does your child demonstrate a strong interest in the arts or in science projects? What better way to help a soft-spoken child gain confidence than to recognize his or her positive qualities and interests?
We would also do well to try and understand the perspective of the quiet children in our classrooms and homes. We might find that a child is particularly thoughtful and likes to consider all of the available information before sharing an opinion. We might learn that he or she prefers to have time to write and reflect before discussing a topic. We might also realize that the student finds it helpful to talk through something with a single student or small group and is willing to share with the whole class after having this opportunity. We might find that the student is more comfortable sharing something as a part of a team or when able to use a presentation tool.
It is true that shyness is often linked with anxiety. In my years as an educator, I have only ever worked with one student who demonstrated a need for formal intervention. It was a rare case of selective mutism that forced me to ask “yes” and “no” question in order to communicate. It was clear that something in the student’s past resulted in an unusual level of anxiety in school, yet I found the student to be a capable, pleasant teen with a sense of humor. While I saw the need for support, I could also see the student’s potential. This is why it is so important for parents and educators alike to encourage children and for educators in particular to establish a safe, supportive classroom environment.
Today’s culture poses additional challenges, as our contemporary society seems to laud loudness as though it is a sign of greatness. Personally, I think much of this stems from the inundation of reality TV shows. At the same time, current classroom practices also perpetuate these beliefs. For instance, local school administrators seeking to implement “The Thinking Classroom” express concerns when they observe a quiet classroom where thinking is not “visible.” A closer examination of “The Thinking Classroom” methodology reveals that the theory encourages educators to understand and engage multiple learning styles. We seem to be afraid of silence in this day and age.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that now, more than ever, we celebrate diversity. Why not celebrate the special gifts that our quiet children bring into our world?