At its core, there is no difference between the personality traits that guide adult behaviour and the behaviour of children. Symptoms and manifestations, that is, how behaviour plays out, may be informed by age, but behind it, the prime driving forces remain the same. Therefore, if a 40-year-old turns down a party invitation while a 6-year-old is seemingly unable to respond to a simple question, they both may be dealing with stimuli in age-specific ways but the trigger could be exactly the same: shyness.
In schools, just as anywhere else, this sometimes-detrimental trait is abundant. Its cousin variations such as underconfidence, anxiety, inability to communicate well, prolonged silence and the like exist inside and outside the classroom. With time, most adults learn how to accept or deal with their innate shyness; they form their rituals and routines around it and gradually manage to cope and adjust. School-children (especially the younger ones) have no such agency. Their shyness is of a bare, helplessly unadulterated kind.
This has a bad effect on the entire schooling experience. As one carries their social fears wherever they go, for extremely underconfident kids, no facet of school life is exempt from being sullied. These are the ones who never ask questions in class, who mumble incoherently when asked one, who finds corners during break time with those similar to them in these ways. They are afraid to be put on the spot and consequently are often ignored. They are not ‘popular’ in that typical, exclusionary way, perhaps unique to primary and secondary education.
This has no bearing on their intelligence, creativity or skill. Kids who are socially unsure of themselves may still excel in studies or lose their inhibitions in music class or tear through track and field events. However, it does have a negative effect sometimes: a viva scuttled by sudden anxiety, an ignored high-school life spent on the social margins, a lack of real ties with teachers or worse of all, a student’s resignation to the fact that his/her introversion will end up mostly dictating life.
At the level of schooling, this phenomenon must be dealt with through careful interventions. It is time for policy, not just individuals, to recognise that student issues are also of a psychosocial kind. Efforts in this direction could include an introduction to certain confidence-building exercises, inclusive methods to break the ice between different personality types of children and an earlier and mandatory introduction to basic psychology. The educational framework should attempt to undercut the hegemony of nerves that some students suffer from so that more talent can surface.
The most important role, as always, will be that of the teachers. They are in the best place to be encouraging and steer early traits in a positive direction. By recognising the shy ones and providing individual attention with requisite patience, they can really turn things around for those children. For this, the treatment of timidity and reticence has to be stigma-free. Empathy and understanding have to be fostered in the children who do not have such issues. Teachers should provide friendly, non-academic support to those who find their stride on the school field but are mute in class, and, conversely, to those who quietly do well in theoretical studies but otherwise only speak when spoken to.
Underconfidence steals from the well of potential. This needs to be rectified, beginning with primary education. Kids in school cannot be hindered by unsolicited personality traits which are irrelevant to their talent but are damaging anyway. The caricature of the quiet, shy and ignored school kid will fade when a school atmosphere suggests there is no shame in it and actively engages with such kids.
Whether they are teachers or legislators, this is clearly a job for adults, who are no different with respect to shyness; the luxury of age just allows for a better cover.