When quiet kids get forgotten in class
Teachers sometimes make the mistake of assuming that students who don't speak up have little to contribute.
Sara is a quiet child who loves to draw pictures in exquisite detail. But Sara's reserved manner troubles her kindergarten teacher. She worries that Sara focuses too much on the details in her drawings and projects and not enough on the other children around her.Skip to next paragraph
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Sara's family - several of whom share her quiet, inward focus - are sure that Sara does not have a problem. That's just her style, they explain.
But not all families - or school systems - are able to be as comfortable with quiet children.
"I've known private school [counselors] who on occasion were heard to say, 'We're looking for socially strong, robust, outgoing children,' which is only one small way of being in the world - there are many ways of being," says Jeanne Bustard, who teaches pre-kindergarten and kindergarten at Friends Select School in Philadelphia.
If there are many ways of being, however, "quiet" is one that is not always accepted in the classroom.
For some children it's a problem that begins in nursery school and can continue on through college and even graduate school. Those not comfortable jumping into the verbal fray are sometimes judged as fearful, less intelligent, or even uncooperative.
As many as 50 to 60 percent of Stanford students say that shyness is a problem at times, according to surveys done by Lynne Henderson, visiting professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Shyness Institute in Palo Alto, Calif.. These tend to be talented and academically successful students, says Dr. Henderson.
The whole classroom loses out when such students are ignored or marginalized, says Henderson. "We cannot afford to have these kids not participate. They're smart."
In fact, she says, the qualities that many quieter children express - thoughtfulness, studiousness, conscientiousness - are among those most needed for the complex problem-solving required by today's information-oriented economy.
Yet instead of nurturing such students, teachers sometimes automatically assume something is wrong with a child who is quiet.
"We negatively stereotype temperaments even as we stereotype races," she says. Such stereotypes can lead to poor classroom experiences for more reserved students.
Sometimes they are ignored. A teacher may refer to a quiet child as "lovely" or "good," but "there can be a kind of brushoff to that," says Ms. Bustard. "It's - 'I don't need to know them, work with them, do for them, worry about them.' "
They may also face discrimination. Bustard remembers a private school that once readily accepted an outgoing child who had difficulty agreeing to any form of compromise and acted badly in games when things didn't go his way.
Yet the school hesitated when it came to another student - a boy she characterizes as "a wonderful, bright child who was a kind friend to others" - simply because he interacted less with others in a play session.
Ironically, it is sometimes the very pressure to keep a classroom quiet that causes a teacher to focus most on children who are more vocal.
"You have to understand that the classroom is a little bit of a pressure cooker," says Jacquelyn Leppla, a first- grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in Oakland, Calif. "If I throw out a question and I have five of my really aggressive kids looking at me ... I'm more likely to call on them because I don't want to deal with their tantrums."
It's frustrating sometimes, says Ms. Leppla, because teachers are regularly trained to deal with diversity of race - but not with diverse temperaments.
"There's all this stuff on student differentiation - different academic levels of instruction, target their abilities," Ms. Leppla says.
However, she says, most of the time, "teachers don't get any training on different temperaments."
Yet such skills are becoming increasingly essential in the United States, say some educators, particularly as immigration levels rise and children from different cultures become a larger presence in classrooms.