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Opening shell that surrounds shy students

Back to school is often a time of excitement and enjoyment for children anxious to meet new friends and participate in activities. However, for some shy children the anxiety of returning to school can be a nightmare.
Robert Coplan, Carleton University psychology professor, describes shy kids as having a nervous system that are wound tighter than those of average individuals.
‘‘It’s like their body is telling them something scary is about to jump out from behind a corner all the time,’’ says Coplan.
Coplan has conducted various research projects surrounding shy children including the Shyness Intervention Project. This project focuses on teaching children techniques to help overcome their shyness as well as education for their parents. Being shy can be problematic for children because it can prevent them from interacting with other children and developing social skills and other skills they will use throughout their lives.
Coplan says some shy children experience problems in school because they are too afraid to answer a question when called upon or are too timid to ask for help when they don’t understand a concept. Teachers are often led to believe the child is unwilling to participate, or misbehaving, as a result.
Meera Mukerjee has been a grade two French immersion teacher for the past three years. She echoes Coplan’s feelings: ‘‘Shy children have difficulties academically and socially. They have trouble making eye contact and difficulty speaking when called upon.’’
Mukerjee says this causes many children to fail French immersion because so much of their grade is dependent upon oral participation. She says, “They have to show signs of learning and if we can’t see these signs they end up failing and it’s not because they’re not capable.
‘‘The loud students dominate the classroom. When they speak up, the shy child shuts down.’’
The intervention project, designed to help children work through these fears, is coordinated by Adrienne DeBow, a developmental psychology PhD Candidate at Carleton University. Each group consists of eight children between the ages of four and five and a half years old. They are gathered from pre-schools and determined to be shy through questionnaires. The children are enrolled in an eight-week program where they are taught a different skill each week such as introducing themselves or making eye contact.
DeBow says the children are given puppets to help them interact because it creates a more comfortable environment. Children are taught in a circle for 15 minutes and then play with specific interactive toys for the remainder of the hour-long session.
After the session, facilitators teach the parents/guardians about shyness and skills
‘‘My ultimate goal is to raise awareness about shy kids, so we can continue our research and intervention projects so these children have happy, healthier lives,’’ says Coplan. ‘‘So many parents are relived that someone is finally paying attention because for so long the loud, boisterous children have been the focus while shy children have been left behind.’’ they can use to help their children break out of their shells.
Coplan says, ‘‘The way parents respond to their children’s shy behaviours can have important effects. Some parents are too harsh and push their children too hard. Other parents are too overprotective and do not push children at all, instead they simply remove them from uncomfortable situations.’’
The sessions aim to teach parents a more centred approach. ‘‘We teach parents to not push too hard, but nudge them up this gentle slope,’’ says DeBow. ‘‘If your child is afraid to swim, take him or her just to see the pool one day. Go back the next day and dip a foot in and so on, until eventually the child doesn’t fear the water.’’
DeBow says the intervention project has yielded positive results. Parents and teachers of the children in the group report that the children are interacting more and are less likely to be afraid when their parents are not present.