The program helping children overcome shyness

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Shyness in children can be debilitating and can lead to lifelong problems, including social anxiety. Now a leading psychologist is sharing a program he devised to help his young daughter, and children like her, overcome their fears.

Associate Professor John Malouff of the University of New England says he drew on his experience as a psychologist and research by experts in the field to create the program which he developed with his wife, fellow psychologist and Associate Professor Nicola Schutte.

While most children will experience some degree of shyness at some time, for others it will be debilitating, something Prof Malouff realised when his daughter Elizabeth refused to speak to anyone when she started school.

"Shy children want to interact with unfamiliar others but don't because of their fear," Prof Malouff says.

"For example, shy children may remain silent around unfamiliar others, even when spoken to. [They] may refuse to enter a new setting such as a classroom without being accompanied by a parent.

"[They] may refuse to participate in athletic or dance activities, they may look only at the ground when around unfamiliar individuals, and they may go to great lengths to avoid calling attention to themselves."

The practical and emotional ramifications of shyness include failure to develop social skills, having fewer friendships and avoidance of activities that put them in the spotlight, including sports, drama, and debating. Shy children may also be perceived as unfriendly, tend to feel lonely and have low self-esteem, and are more likely to suffer gastrointestinal problems. They are also more likely to be anxious during their teenage years.

Associate Professor Malouff says his usually talkative four-year-old daughter was eager to start school but it wasn't long before her teacher contacted him concerned she had a hearing problem because she didn't respond to questions. Elizabeth refused to speak to anyone at school for the next few months but the seriousness of the problem became more evident when she refused to enter a room for an interview.

"That same day I started developing an intervention program to help Elizabeth become more outgoing," he says.


A breakthrough came for Elizabeth on the last day of the school year when the teacher's assistant said hello to her as she entered the classroom and she responded for the first time. Associate Professor Malouff says his daughter continued to become more outgoing, even joining a soccer team. 

The desire to help other children, and their parents,  prompted him to publish the 17 strategies online.

"Some strategies may be more effective with some children than with others. Some children may benefit substantially from regular application of a few of the strategies [while] other children may need many more strategies applied," he says.

"I suggest trying as many strategies as possible for at least a month and continuing with those that seem promising with a particular child."

Associate Professor Malouff says parents should consult a school guidance counsellor or psychologist if there is no improvement after about a month.

Steps to overcoming shyness

1. Tell the child about times when you acted bashful

When shy children start feeling bad about their shyness, they may become less confident and lose self-esteem. Parents can counter this by disclosing times they acted shy and talking about how you became more outgoing.

2. Explain how they will benefit from acting outgoing

The most convincing way for parents to tell children the value of acting outgoing is by giving personal examples, such as having to overcome shyness in order to be a teacher. Parents can explain the more immediate value to the child of outgoing behaviour, such as making more friends, having more fun, and social activities more.

3. Show empathy when children feel afraid to interact

By showing empathy, a parent helps the child feel understood and accepted, and assists them to identify and talk about their emotions and start finding ways to control them.

4. Prevent labelling the child as shy

When talking with others, avoid saying a child is shy as they will think of themselves this way and fulfil the role without making any effort to change. If a child fails out of shyness to respond to a question from someone, prompt the child to speak. If that fails, just go on with the conversation.

5. Set goals for more outgoing behaviour and measure progress

A realistic, challenging goal is to say at least one word to one new person every day. Other goals include speaking in front of a whole class, joining (even silently) in play with another child, or asking a teacher a question.

6. Set a model of outgoing behaviour

Children learn through observing their parents and others. Act outgoing in front of the children by inviting people over, visiting neighbours and speaking to pleasant looking strangers. Talking with children the same age of your child teaches them how to interact with others.

7. Expose the children to unfamiliar settings and people

Whenever possible, let the child get used to the setting and people before you push them to interact. Visit a favourite shop a number of times before encouraging the child to place their own order, or visit a playground often before encouraging them to ask a familiar-looking child their name.

8. Prompt the children to interact with others

Prompt shy children to speak, join, or interact with others using specific prompts such as "Tell so-and-so your name" or "say good-bye." If the child won't speak, prompt them to wave hello or goodbye. Another good strategy is triangulation, whereby you speak to another child, then ask your child what he or she thinks about something relating to the conversation.

9. Reward the children for outgoing behaviour

Rewards are powerful motivators. Whenever a shy child acts outgoing, even slightly, praise the child. If the child achieves a set daily goal, offer praise and celebrate in some with way.

10. Praise others' outgoing behaviour in the presence of the children

By positively commenting on the outgoing behaviour of others, a parent can help a shy child to value outgoing behaviour. Try saying, "I like the way that boy came up to us and asked us our names".

11. Help the child practice interacting with others

Some shy children do not know what to say in certain situations, such as when they meet a new child. Encourage them to practice social skills through rehearsal or role play.

12. Pair a shy child with another child in each important setting

A shy child who makes even one friend in a new setting will feel more comfortable and will interact more with other children. Ask two children to play together or be friends for the day and then talk to them about their common interests or activities.

13. Read books with the children about individuals who overcome shyness

14. Eliminate teasing of the children

Social rejection and teasing can cause shyness, so never tease your child or allow anyone else to.

15. Teach the children to identify and verbally express their emotions

Shy children can start to control their feelings of embarrassment and fear when they identify and talk about their feelings. Talk about your emotions in front of your child and praise them when they do the same. Playing 'emotions charades' or other games helps children identify and express emotions.

16. Coordinate your efforts with those of other relevant adults

Your efforts will produce more improvement if all carers and teachers are involved, even by just praising outgoing behaviour and helping the child make friends.

17. Read more about shyness and learn additional strategies for parents and teachers

Lastly, if you find it difficult to apply the methods or they aren't working for your child, contact the school guidance counsellor or a child psychologist.

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