The Case for Quiet Kids: Helping Introverts Get Heard in the Classroom
By Chrissy Romano-Arrabito
As a student, my parents would inevitably hear the same thing at every Parent-Teacher conference—some variation of: “She sure is a spirited one!” or “Participation isn’t an issue for her!” or my mother’s personal favorite: “She simply needs to stop talking.”
Growing up, I liked to talk to anyone about anything. I was the student others wished would just stop raising her hand to give the other kids a chance—and I was considered a strong, engaged student because of it, if not a little too chatty.
Today, along with my husband and daughter, I continue to be boisterous, silly, and love a good adventure—but my son is a different story. Where we are loud and outgoing, he is quiet and introspective. He sits back, watches and listens, never the one to try new things or start a conversation. During holiday celebrations, he is most often found in his room, waiting out the craziness.
Predictably, it is now me who hears the same thing year after year at Parent-Teacher conferences: “He needs to participate more.” “He’s a smart kid but I would like to see him add to class discussions.” My usual response: “Maybe try to find another way for him to contribute?”
Being quiet, it seems, is regarded as a deficit that needs to be pointed out and fixed. Throughout the years, few teachers bothered asking why he was so quiet and hesitant to share his thoughts. It wasn’t until my son’s fourth-grade year when a teacher helped him come out of his shell. What made this teacher special? He took the time to talk with my son and get to know him personally, despite the fact he was quiet. He made an effort to find ways for him to contribute without being the center of attention.
Now, my son is in eighth grade and while he’s still my shy guy, he may actually raise his hand a few times a year without prompting. Progress!
The quiet children. They don’t cause trouble and for the most part they earn good grades. But these are the children that tend to fade into the background and slip through the cracks. The ones who are so often overlooked.
They may be an introvert like my son, but more likely there are other things at play. Children shut down for all kinds of reasons. Many of our students come to school with the weight of the world on their shoulders. They are hungry, tired or may suffer from a chronic illness like my son; they have parents who work multiple jobs so they are left with the responsibilities of the home or younger siblings. They may be experiencing social issues at school, getting bullied, or just don’t understand what is going in your class. Language acquisition may also play a role.
The key is to do what my son’s fourth grade teacher did and take the time to talk with them. Maybe eat lunch with them or invite them to play a game. Ask them how they would prefer to participate in class. Come up with a plan together. It is not enough to just pay more attention to them. We, as teachers, need to think about why these kids are being quiet.
Once you figure out the why, here are some ways you can include the quiet students in your classroom.
Give tech a try
Take advantage of digital tools that allow students to have a voice without having to speak up in class. Voxer, Flipgrid, Recap, Seesaw, and Today’s Meet are just a few of the tools that can be used to accommodate the shy kids.
Increase wait time
We all know the benefits of wait time but how many actually use it? If you do, try waiting a bit longer to give the quiet students a chance to formulate their thoughts. I know it can be painful to wait five seconds or longer after you ask a question but trust me it will pay off in the end. I tell my students to put their hands on their heads when they have a response. This way there are no waving hands, no shouting out, and no noises from the children like me!
Provide rehearsal time
Giving students an opportunity to rehearse their responses before having to share out in class decreases anxiety and alleviates the stress of having to formulate an answer quickly. Allowing students to use Think Mats, a sheet of paper where partners jot down responses to questions or discussion points BEFORE the conversation starts, gives everyone a chance to be thoughtful about their contributions to a discussion. This extra prep time can make all the difference in the quality of a class discussion, book talk, or when students turn and talk with partners and small groups.
Assign no opt-out mini-assessments
Use Exit Tickets or Do Nows for students to show what they know. You can do this simply and easily using index cards, post its, or pre-printed slips of paper. For those comfortable experimenting with tech, try the Ask a Question feature in Google Classroom, Poll Everywhere, Google Forms, or Answer Garden.
Create a safe space
I host a monthly “lunch bunch” to provide a comfortable atmosphere for children to eat and get to know each other. It’s also a great way for you to get to know them and for them to become more comfortable with you!
If we don’t look beyond the waving hands we are all going to miss out on a lot of brilliant ideas! So get those quiet students involved; the extra effort will be worth their quiet wisdom.
Chrissy (@TheConnectedEdu) is a veteran teacher with over 24 years experience with students in elementary and middle school.