Class Participation Part 3: Introversion, Shyness, and Social Anxiety

This is the third installment in my Class Participation series. Today, I’d like to discuss how forced participation in class discussion affects introverts, shy kids, and students with social anxiety.

Introvert, Shy Kid, or Student with Social Anxiety Disorder?

The term “introvert” is most useful when considered as distinct from “shyness.” Introversion relates to the desire to engage in social interaction, whereas shyness relates to difficulty engaging in social interaction. One of my favorite definitions of introvert is “someone who is energized by being alone.” In this context, an extrovert is someone who is energized by being in a group. I’m an introvert, so I’m easily exhausted by large groups. I often crave time alone. Extroverted friends have expressed confusion about my desire for alone time. I’m similarly confused by these friends’ desire to spend the majority of their time surrounded by others. “If I’m alone, I get depressed,” says the extrovert. “If I’m surrounded by others, I get tired,” says the introvert.

The most important thing to remember about introverts and extroverts is that neither is better that the other. It’s unnecessary and potentially harmful to try to force someone to switch from one to the other.

Shyness or social anxiety can occur in both introverts and extroverts. Shyness can prevent students from expressing themselves and engaging in positive social interaction, so it may actually be beneficial to lovingly encourage shy students to “come out of their shells.”

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is distinct from shyness primarily in that people with SAD experience “fear and avoidance… so severe that they significantly interfere with … daily functioning, school, work, or relationships.” Social Anxiety Disorder is a serious disorder that must be diagnosed by a mental health professional.

Should a teacher allow her students to opt out of class activities just because the student doesn’t like the activity?

All children are born with temperaments and tastes, but it’s important for adults to encourage and allow children to try a variety of activities and personas in order to facilitate emotional growth and self-discovery. Parents know to insist that their children try at least “one bite” of new foods. We know to take children to ballet class and soccer practice and chess club because young children really don’t know what they’ll end up loving. But, when a child clearly expresses an opinion about something that they’ve tried, it’s important to listen. Remember, children are human beings, and they do understand suffering and pleasure. If your child adamantly insists that she hates soccer, you probably shouldn’t sign her up for the team next year. (Obviously issues like these can be somewhat complex, and parents have to use their own judgement. A child who hates vegetables, for example, is likely to benefit from continued exposure.)

We all know that classrooms can be overcrowded and teachers can be overtaxed. As I’ve mentioned, class discussion is a relatively easy way to ensure that students are engaging in some way with class material. I dislike class discussion for several reasons, but today I’m focusing on whether it’s appropriate to force introverted, shy, and anxious students to participate in discussion.

Introverted children who are not disordered are unlikely to suffer psychological harm due to forced participation in discussion, but they’re also not particularly likely to benefit from traditional discussion. As an introvert, I learn best working on my own or in a small, intimate group of intelligent peers. Class participation tends to bore and alienate me, and I only speak up when I have something relevant and unique to say. Reducing the grade of students who share selectively is, in my opinion, absurd. However, a dedicated teacher might engage introverted students by directly asking them specific, interesting questions, or by asking whether they agree with the dominant discourse of the discussion.

Shy kids will suffer when forced to participate in class discussion, but they may also benefit from gentle encouragement. A shy extrovert in particular is likely to thrive in a supportive classroom with a teacher who slowly increases the amount of required participation in class discussion.

How much can a teacher help a student with Social Anxiety Disorder?

As with all anxious children, students suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder can greatly benefit from gentle encouragement. Incremental increases in participation in class discussion may help a student with SAD reduce the severity of her disorder. However, a teacher without proper training is NOT a therapist and should not be prescribing a therapy regimen. I can’t stress this enough: a child with Social Anxiety Disorder should be under the care of a mental health professional, and that professional is likely to prescribe exercises designed to help the child manage her anxiety. Teachers of anxious students should educate themselves, treat their students with respect and empathy, and work with the parents and therapists of their anxious students.

Everyone needn’t be the same!

It’s common knowledge that students have different learning preferences, tastes, and strengths. Trying to homogenize students is futile and, more importantly, bad for society! We need students who love limelight and students who work backstage, students who love reading and students who prefer creating, students who obey and students who rebel. Every student deserves the chance to be her best self. Moreover, school should be enjoyable! Hard work and joy are not mutually exclusive. While it’s important for teachers to push children out of their comfort zones, students should never be punished for anxiety, and they should not be expected to become little copies of their teachers.

Coming up: how to make class discussion effective and enjoyable for everyone

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3 thoughts on “Class Participation Part 3: Introversion, Shyness, and Social Anxiety

    1. Wow, thanks, Krysten! I’m sorry your son had a bad experience in school. It’s always upsetting when teachers completely fail to support students who have anxiety. I’m glad you found a solution that works for your family.

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