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.
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.
While US society at large tends to value extroverted behavior, many other cultures - particularly some Asian - are more apt to train their children to be polite, restrained, and reflective.
It's a difficulty native Americans have coped with for decades, says Loren Spears, a Narragansett Indian and mother of two boys.
"Native learning is that you are supposed to be contemplative and reflective, thoughtful, and you aren't supposed to be competitive," she explains.
In public school, however, she found that her naturally quiet sons were often viewed as slow or lacking in social skills.
Eventually Ms. Spears took her children out of public school and founded a K-8 private school she felt would be more compatible with native American ideas about learning.
It's an issue mainstream schools need to do a better job of addressing, say some educators.
"We need to make room for every child in the classroom," says Anne Sabatini, professor of practice at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York, and a veteran teacher herself. "It's a belief system. Without unconditional acceptance of each child, a teacher will have difficulty reaching all children."
One way to incorporate quiet children in the classroom is to establish a cooperative learning environment, says Professor Sabatini.
In such an environment, teachers form heterogeneous groups with interdependent tasks: A quiet child may engage in an activity initiated by a more outgoing child, and the tasks required to complete the activity draw on the different strengths and skills of all involved.
This environment teaches all students about group dynamics and group discussion.
When quiet students are not engaged, they may find themselves misunderstood not only by their teachers but also by their fellow students.
Research shows that until age 7, kids don't see their quieter peers as odd, but after this age quiet children become more self-conscious about their style, and are seen as different by their more verbal peers, says Elaine Aron, a San Francisco psychologist and author of "The Highly Sensitive Person."
Having a smaller group of friends instead of a large circle is not necessarily a problem for a child, say experts.
"There are people who are quite content to be by themselves," says Robert Brooks, a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and author of "Raising Resilient Children."
One child may have only one or two good friends, while another may have 40 friends but not be able to play by himself, he says. "Anything taken to extreme can be a problem, but in the normal range there's a wide variation."
A teacher ready to seek out the varied strengths different children may have can help increase the amount of peer recognition a quiet child may receive, says Dr. Brooks.
In a sports-dominated school program, he says, for instance, a quiet child with a passion for art or music could be encouraged in that interest.
Leppela says that now at her school she and fellow teachers are receiving training to help them deal better with quieter children, including those who might not be native English speakers.
For one thing, Leppla says, she is learning to foster class discussions that involve more reflective, open-ended questions that encourage deeper thinking.
Instead of asking, "who were the main characters in the story," she has learned to ask, "Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation as the main character?"
This training, Leppla says, definitely helps quieter students, many of whom are from non-English-speaking cultures.
"You want to give them time to think and answer because the English-only kids will totally dominate," Leppla says. "It's a real issue around language learners."
Once quiet children begin to respond, specific, public praise can help them to feel important and valued, says Sabatini.
Leppla agrees. "Kids are receptive if the teacher sets a social code," she says. "I have this little Asian girl who speaks so quietly I can hardly hear her. And every time she speaks up I go, 'Wow - Lindy's talking so we can hear her!' And we all clap, and the kids totally get it."
• Marjorie Kehe contributed material to this story.