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Overcoming Shyness: Helping Your Child Excel in School and Life

by Wendy Burt-Thomas

While some scientists may argue that shyness is often due to genetic predisposition, many psychologists will point to strong experiential factors. The latter of the two can often be explained by past experiences of rejection or fears of future failure. But as sad as social confidence may appear, there is good news. For children and teens who suffer from shyness, there are three major steps that parents can take to help:

  1. Highlighting past successes

  2. Provide opportunities for new successes

  3. Get to the root of the problem

Reminders of past successes
Highlighting past successes doesn't have to mean just verbally reminding a child that they did something well. It could include framing a photo of their best dance recital, placing awards or trophies in a place of prominence, placing an announcement in the newspaper or family newsletter, or asking them to mentor a younger child on the piano. You can also "brag" to family members or friends within earshot of your child, ("I was so proud of Michelle. She scored two points in her basketball game!") or encourage a child just for attempting something new (even if they didn't excel at it).

Opportunities for new successes
Just as you wouldn't take a child who is afraid of heights up to the top of the Empire State Building, it's not recommended that you force shy kids into unfamiliar social situations. Your best bet is to introduce them to familiar settings and activities, such as family events, close friends' birthday parties or play dates in the comfort of their own home.

Building social confidence doesn't just come from interaction, however. It's largely based on self-confidence, which can be increased through solo successes in art, music, grades, individual athletics, writing and responsibilities (taking care of an older sibling or pet).

Look for opportunities to help your child soar at whatever he/she does - even if it has to start at home. Once your child hits a major milestone (such as completing an essay and entering it into a contest), be sure to praise his/her effort rather than the final result. In the case of the essay, for example, you could share the piece with friends and family and ask them to send complimentary responses, or post the piece on an online community portal or personal blog.

The root of the problem
Sometimes, shyness is the result of a pervasive problem that may or may not exist outside the child's control. Bullies, cliques or an overly critical parent or sibling can lead a child to devalue his/her worth and accomplishments. Look for ways to foster discussion with children to help determine the cause of their shyness. Questions like, "What makes you feel sad?" or "When was the last time you were mad?" may spark a conversation that leads to some discovery.

One often-overlooked correlation is that shyness is often paralleled by low self-esteem due to slower (not lower) performance. While some may argue the "chicken or the egg theory" - that slow performance is a result of low self-esteem - scientists and psychologists now know that more often than not, self-esteem can be increased by increasing the speed at which results are attained. In fact, even smart kids tend to suffer a decrease of confidence when they don't achieve their results (such as test-taking or homework) as quickly or easily as their classmates.

Take Angela Knutsen. Her 9-year-old daughter, Holly, was a good student and incredibly strong reader for her age. But Knutsen had concerns that while Holly was in the upper level math class, she seemed to struggle with her math facts. "When I would practice math drills with her, she would know 6 + 6 = 12, but if I immediately asked 6 + 7, she wouldn't know," explains Knutsen. "After I got her tested, I could tell why: her short-term memory was weak and her processing speed was slow. She couldn't hold 6 + 6 is 12 in her head long enough to process 'therefore 6 +7 must be one more, 13.'"

In addition, Holly had struggled with low self-esteem and suffered from extreme anxiety. "She has always had trouble going into new situations," says Knutsen, who herself suffered from anxiety as a child. "She would cry every day when I took her to kindergarten, and in first and second grade she would get herself so nervous about a change in routine; if there was a field trip or an assembly the next day, she would cry several times the night before, and she would look physically sick. It broke my heart."

Knutsen began researching programs to help bright children. "There were a lot of tutors and businesses that helped kids with severe learning disabilities, but that's not what Holly needed," she explains. "I eventually stumbled across a cognitive skills training company," explains Knutsen. "The testimonials from other parents - especially those with fearful children like Holly - convinced me to give it a try. I kept hearing that increased confidence was a near-universal side effect."

Initial testing confirmed that Holly was weaker in those cognitive skills that are needed to excel in math - logic and reasoning, and memory - (though still above average compared to her peers). More specific testing unveiled weaknesses in retrieval fluency, short-term memory, and executive processing speed.

Over the next several weeks, Holly worked with a brain trainer to strengthen her weakest cognitive skills. By the time she completed the program, Holly's math skills - and math scores - had improved. But perhaps more importantly, so had her self-esteem. According to Knutsen, she was completing math tests and math homework more quickly and therefore didn't have as much anxiety.

"The biggest change is non-academically," says Knutsen. "Holly is beaming. She's more confident, happy, thriving. She's doing things on her own that she never would have tried before-basketball, art classes, new babysitters. When she's running off to try something new, my husband and I often say, "Who is this person and what has she done with our daughter?""

According to Dr. Ken Gibson, author of "Unlock the Einstein Inside: Applying New Brain Science to Wake up the Smart in your Child," there's a good reason that kids beat themselves up over low performance. "It's an endless cycle to try to raise the self-esteem of kids who aren't performing well - especially if they're placed into special education instead of trying to get to the root of the problem, which is weak cognitive skills. Special education programs typically seek to accommodate struggling students with a primary strategy of lowering expectations to help those children get through school. Kids still compare themselves with peers outside of class, however, and special education students often suffer eroding self-esteem, which has the power to make their learning disabilities all that much more debilitating. But even smart kids will beat themselves up for underperforming in one subject."

Tanya Mitchell, who works as the director of training for LearningRX, a national brain-training franchise, agrees. "We see all types of kids going through our brain-training programs - from children with ADD and dyslexia to teens who want to increase their learning skills to perform better on college prep tests. The two things they all have in common when they complete the program are stronger cognitive skills and increased self-esteem."

Whatever the cause, shyness is a common condition and shouldn't be treated as a plague. Many children grow out of it and those that don't can still go on to build healthy relationships and careers. Still, if there's a non-genetic reason behind a child's low self-esteem, getting to the root of the problem could me watching him/her transform before your eyes.

Wendy Burt-Thomas is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs, CO. Autographed copies of her books are available through WendyBurt-Thomas.com.

 


 

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