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Encouraging Students to Participate: How to Help Shy Students Speak Up

Encouraging Students to Participate: How to Help Shy Students Speak Up

Here's what you do when your students are seen, but not heard.

Encouraging students to participate can be tricky when it comes to the kid who seems to actively avoid speaking up. I know I find it to be especially complicated when the student who never raises their hand has the most insightful, compelling ideas to share when I meet with them one-on-one. I had one student, Vanessa, who barely spoke at the beginning of the year, even though I knew she had a lot to share. I wanted to figure out how to get her to participate more. But putting a shy, introverted kid on the spot in class, begging them to participate, can be traumatic and most likely won't achieve the outcome you're looking for. So how can you get these students talking?

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Create a Safe Space

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being introverted. But it's important for kids to learn the skills they'll need to feel comfortable sharing. When encouraging students to participate, we need to make sure they feel safe contributing in class. We live in a culture that tends to reward extroversion, so it isn't easy to be more of an observer than a participant—both in and out of the classroom. Introverts watch your classroom dynamic and assess whether it's a safe place for them to express themselves. Are mistakes ridiculed? How are "wrong" answers handled? Do the same kids get your attention and praise regularly? The best way to get everyone to participate is to set up standards for all class participation that encourages everyone to try their best. Try including rules such as raising your hand when you have something to say and not calling out.

Further reading: Creating an Engaged and Positive Classroom Culture

Start Small (Groups)

Small group discussions provide more opportunities for all students, not just the quiet ones, to participate. There is less competition between students, and the flow of the discussion can be more inclusive simply because there are fewer people involved. For more introverted students, this can feel far less intimidating because instead of speaking in front of 30 kids, they only need to face four. This will also make them more comfortable speaking up in front of the entire class later because they will have had the opportunity to work out their ideas with their small group beforehand.

This was one of the most effective strategies when I was encouraging Vanessa to get involved in class. I noticed that she was starting to feel more comfortable as I used this strategy, and not only was she benefiting from the positive feedback she received from her classmates, but they got to hear the gems of information and insight she shared.

Assign Conversation Partners

Who are the kids that more introverted kids feel comfortable around? Pair them up to discuss the subject or project at hand. Then have each pair share with the class. This way, your shyer students will know that they'll be asked to speak in front of the class, and they'll be able to prepare both intellectually (the material) and emotionally (the courage to share with the class).

Let Them Prepare

Building on the idea of a predictable event, try to avoid putting your shy kids on the spot. Ask the introverted student if they wouldn't mind sharing a specific thought or idea in class at a specific time in the future. This can be something to start a class discussion or a point to be made in the middle of the lesson. They can prepare and be ready to go when you call on them.

I also use scheduled class presentations. Every week, two students in my fifth grade class present a current events article. They speak to the class about the article they chose, why they chose it, and their opinion. I give them the schedule in advance so each student can prepare, and I intentionally place the kids who may be more nervous in the middle or toward the end in terms of timing. I also pair them with another student who's comfortable presenting so they can rehearse beforehand. It all makes a difference.

Further reading: Do Introverts Have the Right Teacher Characteristics to Succeed?

By using a number of these techniques in my class, Vanessa became a regular participant by January. Come May, she was engaging even more freely. Was she a full-blown extrovert who called out every chance she got? No, but that wasn't the goal. What I wanted, and what I accomplished, was to help her recognize her own strengths as a member of the class and encourage her to share her thoughts. When it comes to encouraging students to participate, these techniques truly work. Give them a shot in your classroom.