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Special Article

But What About My Shy Students?

Rick DuVall, Ph.D.

To cite this article: Duvall, R. But What About My Shy Students? Kagan Online Magazine, Issue #62. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. www.KaganOnline.com

I’m frequently asked questions when delivering Kagan Workshops such as, “What do I do if I have a student who is painfully shy,?” and, “How do I help an extreme introvert who refuses to share her thoughts with others?” I love when I’m asked these questions as they demonstrate that the person posing the question is obviously a compassionate educator who wants to protect the feelings of their less outgoing students while also wanting to improve those students’ confidence and speaking skills. I also know that the person asking the question genuinely wants assistance in developing strategies to help all of their students meet today’s standards for speaking.

My responses to the question remain consistent. First, we need to realize that introversion and shyness aren’t necessarily synonyms. Introverts enjoy time alone and tend to need less social stimulation than extroverts. Shy people, on the other hand, tend to fear negative judgments by others. Susan Cain explains in Quiet, “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating.” Introversion and shyness certainly can overlap, especially if an introvert has been made to feel as though their personality is somehow less desirable than an extroverted one. However, there are shy extroverts, as well—people who enjoy the stimulation of a crowd while simultaneously hoping to not be singled out as the center of attention.

Shy students equally can thrive in a cooperative classroom when their teacher structures for them to be valued and appreciated.

Introverted students can thrive in a cooperative classroom as their teachers stress that they will be sharing their own work and their own unique thoughts during Kagan Structures. Furthermore, the teacher will structure for them to share their ideas with only one other person at a time or in small teams of two or three other peers so that they are not overwhelmed by the overstimulation of large-group settings. Shy students equally can thrive in a cooperative classroom when their teacher structures for them to be valued and appreciated. Through working with introverted and shy students in my own classroom, as well as providing support to other educators in their classrooms, I have discovered multiple ways to help these students succeed in a cooperative classroom. This article provides suggestions to engage those students. Remember, it’s all about engagement!

Stress PIES

We want to introduce structures explicitly, stressing to our students that as we are experiencing a new Kagan Structure, we are learning a repeatable sequence of steps that will structure how students interact with our content, with us as their teachers, and with their peers. Many students are accustomed to being immersed in unstructured group work in classrooms where they may feel like they’re participating in Lord of the Flies, where only the loudest personalities will survive. In the group work approach, dominant personalities usually take over, relegating the more shy students to the background and where introverted students feel incredible amounts of stress and discomfort. We can emphasize to our students that we are engaging in cooperative learning, not group work, where we will be using Kagan Structures for active engagement that consistently contain the following principles of PIES:

  • Positive Interdependence: Stress to students that when their teammates does well, it will helps them do better. Conversely, when he or she shares a brilliant idea, it will help his or her teammates understand our content better. Stressing the positive correlation of outcomes within a Kagan Structure can help our shy students realize the value of their contributions in helping others. Also, the Kagan Structure depends on each partner doing their part so that they must be interdependent. Each partner cannot complete the Kagan Structure unless both partners do their part. Stressing the interdependence of the Kagan Structure can help our introverted students realize that they will have their own task to complete within any structure.
  • Individual Accountability: Stress that they cannot expect that someone else will take over and do all the work. Each person must publicly share his or her ideas. Stressing the individual accountability within a Kagan Structure can help our introverted students realize that they will have opportunities within any Kagan Structure to come up with their own ideas and share those ideas.
  • Equal Participation: Stress that no one will push them aside and take over. They either will have equal turns or equal time to share. Stressing the equal participation within a Kagan Structure can help our shy students realize that their ideas will be needed and valued.
  • Simultaneous Interaction: Stress that they will not have to share in front of the whole class, one person at a time. Instead, they will share equally with a partner (50% of students in class will be answering or doing something at any one time) or with a team (25% of students in class will be answering or doing something at any one time). Stressing the simultaneous interaction within a Kagan Structure can help our introverts and our shy students realize that they won’t have to interact with others in a large group setting.

Strategically Form Teams

When setting up new teams every six weeks in our classrooms, there are multiple factors to consider when placing four students together. Most teachers who implement Kagan Cooperative Learning are familiar with the recommendations that we give for forming heterogeneous teams based on achievement levels. In addition to the four achievement levels, we also should take into account the special needs of any of our students, including our introverted and shy students. We can ask ourselves questions such as:

  • Who will be a considerate shoulder partner to the introverted or shy student?
  • Who will be an understanding face partner?
  • Are there any classmates with whom the student seems to feel more comfortable?
  • Does the student seem to feel safer and function better near the front of the room or the back of the room?

Allow Think Time

In traditional classrooms settings, a teacher asks a question and often calls on the first student who raises his or her hand. Shy students, especially those who lack the confidence to share their thoughts, develop a habit of allowing the more outgoing, quick thinkers to answer practically all the questions each instructional day. We can better support all of our students by posing a question, allowing for think time, and then explaining the Kagan Structure to use for ALL students to share their answers. For example, when implementing a Kagan Structure like RallyRobin, where the teacher is expecting each student to share multiple answers, we can provide guided think time by asking a question and then guide our students’ thinking by saying something like, “Thumbs up when you have one answer.” We then wait for ALL students to signal that they have an idea ready, and then progress to, “Give me a second thumbs up when you have a second answer.” When everyone is ready, we can say, “Stand when you have a third answer.” When ALL students are standing, we can direct them by saying, “Please turn to your shoulder partner and RallyRobin your ideas. Partner A will start the RallyRobin.” Adequate think time allows our introverted students time for solo reflection and concentration and our shy students time to organize their thoughts before they have to speak.

Incorporate Praises and Cheers

We can ask our students to give a delightful, surprising praise to their partners when the partner answers a question cleverly or completes a task well. Regular praise supports our shy students as they feel more appreciated and competent. We also can guide our students to cheering with their partners, teams, and class to celebrate their own performance. Incorporating cheers consistently into our classroom routines can help our shy students start to feel like an important member of a team and, ultimately, a classroom community. Additionally, regular praises and cheers can help our introverted students realize that their individual contributions are noticed and valued by others.

Infuse Social Skills

Many shy students are not accustomed to having peers regularly do things like greet them, thank them, listen to them, or smile at them. We can ensure that all students are developing, refining, and expanding their social skills by embedding social skills daily into our uses of Kagan Structures for active engagement. Instead of expecting our shy students to assert themselves into a peer group or assuming that our extroverted students will include all of their peers, we can make sure that positive social skills are being nurtured by regularly providing directions to our students like, “Please turn to your shoulder partner, smile, and when I say, ‘Go!,’ greet them with a hearty, ‘Good morning! I can’t wait to hear your ideas!’ Go!” Regularly embedding social skills within Kagan Structures can help our shy students realize that others appreciate and honor them as peers. Additionally, our introverted students feel less stress when the teacher is structuring for and requiring everyone to utilize specific social skills because the students are not “wasting” time figuring out a needed social skill by themselves.

Demonstrate Compassion and Empathy

Explain that nearly everyone can feel shy sometimes. Share how you understand that it can be difficult to speak up in some situations, and it becomes easier and more comfortable with practice. Encourage shy students to contribute their ideas and express genuine appreciation for their efforts.

Structure for Teambuilding Regularly

To help all students feel safe enough to take a risk and share their ideas, Dr. Kagan suggests that we engage our students in teambuilding two times a week. Teambuilding is when we utilize a Kagan Structure for active engagement with content that is fun, non-academic, and easy for ALL students. When we have an extremely introverted student, we may need to engage students in teambuilding more frequently for a while. I recommend investigating to find out what this student enjoys doing for fun outside of school and then designing a one- or two-minute teambuilding question around that passion. For example, if I discover that my shy student loves the National Basketball Association and knows practically all statistics of every Orlando Magic player, I might start class by asking students to do a Timed RoundRobin. “Today, let’s warm up with a two-minute fun, teambuilding question: Who is your favorite basketball player, and what do you admire about him or her? If you don’t enjoy basketball, you can explain why you don’t like the sport. You’ll each get 30 seconds to explain your thoughts to your teammates as we do a Timed RoundRobin. Thumbs up when you know pretty much what you’re going to say. (pause) Okay, Teammate #1, you’re up first. Go!” Implementing quick teambuilding activities regularly can help our introverted students get to know others and allow others to know and value them without having to engage in small talk for long stretches of time.

Structure for Classbuilding Regularly

Students can learn to safely start interacting with random partners by regularly engaging in quick classbuilding Kagan Structures such as StandUp–HandUp–PairUp and Quiz-Quiz-Trade. These structures allow students to work very briefly with a random partner without having to devote a lot of time and energy to developing the partnership. Dr. Kagan suggests that we design a fun classbuilder at least once a week and as often as needed for academic content. Obviously, the more that students engage in classbuilding Kagan Structures, the more comfortable they will become in working with various types of people, thereby strengthening their interpersonal skills. By utilizing Kagan Structures for classbuilding regularly, our shy students will diminish their fear of being judged negatively by classmates while they feel more support from those classmates, gaining the confidence that comes with a stronger sense of mutual support.

Utilize Partner Structures

Whereas traditional instructional methods require students to confidently raise their hands to answer questions in front of a room full of peers, Kagan Structures such as RallyRobin and Timed Pair Share allow students the regular experience of sharing their thoughts out loud with a partner without having the pressure of a large group of people listening. When working with an extremely introverted student, I recommend that teachers utilize pair structures regularly to help scaffold those students into gaining confidence and practice sharing their ideas to an audience of only one peer. We know that this quickly can help our shy students attain more confidence sharing their ideas with others.

Introverted students need plenty of opportunities to think for themselves and to share their thoughts in carefully-formed small groups of peers. Shy students, similarly, often just need a little more support and patience to develop their self-confidence.

Try Written Kagan Structures

Kagan Structures such as RallyTable and RoundTable provide a safe way for students to share their thoughts without having to use oral language skills. If a student is extremely shy, it can be advantageous to utilize these type of structures frequently to provide students with the opportunity to share their ideas without having to speak. Technology such as Chromebooks and iPads also may be utilized during written structures to provide additional adaptive support to students. Implementing written Kagan Structures regularly can help our introverted students immerse themselves in sharing their ideas for longer periods of time.

Begin Implementing Team Structures Slowly

When it becomes obvious that a shy student is becoming more confident with pair structures, we can begin to implement team structures. Kagan Structures such as RoundRobin allow our shy students to safely gain the confidence of speaking to three teammates. When a teacher introduces a new Kagan Structure, we recommend that the teacher start with a fun question so that students can internalize the steps of the structure without the distractions of academic content. Once the students internalize the sequence of a Kagan Structure, that structure consistently can be used with academic content to help all students become more comfortable sharing their answers to subject-specific questions. Regularly incorporating team structures into our lesson plans can help our shy students safely practice sharing their thoughts with others.

Keep Believing in the Students

All of the above techniques work well for both extroverted and introverted students, as well as for both shy and outgoing students. It’s just that our introverted students need plenty of opportunities to think for themselves and to share their thoughts in carefully-formed small groups of peers. Shy students, similarly, often just need a little more support and patience to develop their self-confidence. If we are working with a student who has been diagnosed as having a profound social anxiety disorder or selective mutism, we are wise to seek additional support from school counselors and school psychologists.

As we prepare our students for an ever-increasing interconnected world, they must gain the ability to share their ideas with others. Keeping the strategies in this article in mind can provide a supportive way to assist the students. Remember that ALL our students have incredible gifts to offer the world. By not giving up on these students, we can teach them how to unwrap those gifts and confidently share them with others.


Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. 2012. New York: Crown Publishing Group.