Silent students ...

Silent students ... Photo: Getty Images

‘Silent students’ are described in educational research as those ‘reluctant to speak in open class forums’ (Jones & Gerig, 1994). For these students, participation in the classroom is considered risky and depends upon perceived peer support as well as the student’s sense of belonging and justice within the classroom (Povey, 2003). Classrooms can be overwhelming for people of all ages, including children, adolescents and adults.

Students who are reluctant to participate in class discussions miss opportunities to build academic and social confidence. These issues are only amplified by tasks, such as public speaking or participation in class performances. Without adequate support, silent students often do not develop confidence in the classroom. Rather, they learn to avoid group discussions at school, university and as adults, these issues are typically transferred to the work place.

Research suggests secondary schools can undermine silent students by prioritizing individual desk-based learning, whereby students are required to raise their hands to report to teachers in a full-class forum (Gamoran & Nystrand, 1992). Students who lack confidence in classrooms typically prefer one-to-one or small group discussions, a practice more common in primary school. Yet, primary school teachers are reluctant to call on students who are struggle with group discussions. One Year 4 teacher recently shared her concerns at a meeting to help boost the confidence of her nine-year-old student, “I don’t call on her in class discussion because I know she won’t respond”. In my experience, teachers empathize with students who prefer one-to-one attention, and most of these students are on par with their peers academically.

Interestingly, parents visiting The Quirky Kid Clinic often report a very different picture in the home setting. Silent students aged 5-12 years, often return from school feeling frustrated and prone to emotional outbursts. Many dislike school, fear failure and resent their inhibitions. These children often respond well to individual intervention with a psychologist. This is an opportunity to develop strategies together and to establish a strong support network between home and school.

Adolescent students typically grapple with more academic, developmental and social issues than primary school students, following the adjustment to the secondary school system. For this reason, early adolescent students are more likely to withdraw in classrooms and experience decreases in academic motivation (Eccles et al, 1993). For many students, this represents a shift in classroom confidence from primary to secondary school. Parents are encouraged to engage with secondary school teachers to better understand classroom confidence.

To develop classroom confidence and greater participation in group discussions, teachers and individual students are encouraged to develop a continuum. Start with easier tasks, such as one-to-one and small group participation, building to slightly larger groups with more structure. For example, silent students often enjoy the role of ‘scribe’, writing down ideas during brainstorming activities. This could be mid-way through the continuum, working towards more advanced tasks over time, such as interacting with the smart board or writing on a white board during class discussions. Students are likely to experience a sense of pride in each new accomplishment.

In the secondary school setting, silent students may feel more at ease in smaller specialized classrooms with a practical focus, such as art, computers or music. Communication between teachers is encouraged to ensure participation by silent students is acknowledged across every context of the school. Designating roles of responsibility, such as ‘raising the school flag’ or ‘assisting with light and sound at assembly’ is often an effective strategy to boost confidence among students of all ages.

The following resources are also recommended to boost confidence in the classroom:

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3.  Changing Behaviour in Schools - Promoting positive relationships

Has your child been reluctant to participate in classroom discussion? Do you have any strategies that has worked well for you? Leave a comment below or join the discussion on the EK Forums.