Shyness exists in the gifted population just as it does in all other groups of people. Likewise, the specific type and severity of shyness is highly variable. The causes of shyness are not well known. Heredity, environment, temperament, stress, and experiences (such as being singled out) may all play a role. Anxiety associated with shyness may be related to fear of evaluation, to learned behaviors, or to negative self-talk.
Shyness in the gifted has several unique elements.
- Just being identified as gifted may bring unwanted attention to the shy gifted student. Special services or unique classroom groups may add to the discomfort, because being singled out highlights difference. This does not mean that the shy gifted should not be identified or served; rather, it means that teachers and parents must be conscious of the impact of that attention and must work with the individual child to create a supportive, nonthreatening environment.
- Many characteristics associated with giftedness (such as perfectionism, hypersensitivity, imagination, and intensity) create situations that exacerbate shyness. Gifted children tend to be harsh critics of their own performance, imagining worst consequences and internalizing gestures, comments, and nonverbal communications that others would just shrug off. Learning and using positive self-talk can help the shy gifted overcome this negativity.
- Gifted students are often asked to perform or display their abilities (e.g., by reading their poetry aloud, demonstrating their inventions, performing skits, and competing against others). Alternative forms of presentation, additional preparation time, and limited venues can help shy gifted children.
- Introversion, common in the gifted population, may be mistaken for shyness. Introverts generally do not like large groups and enjoy working alone. These behaviors look like shyness but are not. (There are, of course, shy introverts.) Introverts may find it useful to learn how to look and act like extroverts in certain situations, but they should not be forced to change their personality traits.
Adult response to shyness hinges on how disruptive it is. If a child’s life is minimally impacted by shyness, perhaps some assistance with coping skills or extra practice before a performance is all that is needed. If a child’s life is severely impacted because shyness hinders risk taking, causes avoidance of new environments or settings, or just creates misery, then thoughtful intervention is warranted. However, one should not automatically assume that a child who appears to be shy is shy, is unhappy, or wants to change. These determinations require extensive discussion with the child.
If your child exhibits serious disruptive anxieties or withdrawal, you should seek professional help for him or her. For mild dis comfort caused by shyness some general strategies may be of use.
Any strategy to reduce anxiety and discomfort must honor the gifted student’s need for cognitive intervention while also including standard psychological approaches such as behavior modification. Some suggestions to share with teachers: provide direct instruction in social skills, have the child work with a buddy, offer extended preparation time for any oral presentation, provide alternative forms of presentation and assessment for student work, teach stress management and positive self-talk in class, and include bibliotherapy and journaling as a part of affective education. This needs to be a collaborative effort, with coordinated reinforcement of new behavior at home, too.
Other interventions can be more home-centered, especially those related to nonacademic activities. Parents and siblings can help prepare the shy gifted child to handle new social encounters successfully (e.g., by role-playing how to answer questions or ask for directions). They also can act as a buffer while the shy child develops those abilities.
Developing the skills to cope with uncomfortable situations is the foundation of growing out of disruptive shyness. Maturity helps, but knowledge and practice also play a big role.
—Jill D. Burruss, PhD
Jill D. Burruss is coordinator of gifted education for the Department of Defense Education Activity. She is especially interested in the social-emotional issues of gifted children.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense.
Books about Shyness
- The Shy Child: Helping Children Triumph over Shyness, by Ward K. Swallow, Warner, 2000
- Shyness, by Philip G. Zimbardo, Addison-Wesley Longman, 2000
- Shyness: A Bold New Approach, by Bernardo J. Carducci, with Susan K. Golant, Perennial, 2000
- The Hidden Face of Shyness: Understanding and Overcoming Social Anxiety, by Franklin Schneier and Lawrence Welkowitz, Avon, 1996