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For Administrators Updated November 8, 2017

Strategies for Teachers Working with Hesitant Students

By Brian P. Gatens October 2, 2014

I’m no expert on personality types, but I suspect most teachers tend to be extroverts. Of course, many teachers who are introverts by nature are doing an excellent job, but it sure helps to have an outgoing personality if you’re going to be getting up in front of a group of students day in and day out.

Hesitant students need specific strategies to encourage participation in classThat’s why I think a lot of teachers misunderstand the hesitant student — the child who tends to gravitate away from participating, won’t take academic risks or otherwise avoids a full investment in the classroom. Extroverts have a hard time seeing things from the perspective of the introvert. So, how do we get hesitant students to engage in the classroom? Keep these points in mind:

See what’s really going on

Too often, a teacher might chalk up children’s “hang-back” behavior to their being unprepared to take part in the class. Instead, I encourage teachers to think of the other factors that might be playing a role.

The child might be struggling with self-esteem issues or there might be a conflict with another child in the class, and the student doesn’t want to open themselves up to public view. There may be bigger issues happening at home that students are dealing with, causing them to close themselves off during class. The knee-jerk reaction to nonparticipation might have nothing to do with the actual cause.

Respect their fear of failure

Teachers arrive in the classroom with over 15 years of formal schooling and have had numerous opportunities to succeed and fail. We learn that failure, as difficult as it may be to experience, is certainly neither permanent nor fatal. It’s just a necessary step to increase our skill sets and capacities.

A child does not have this understanding, so any setback or mistake (no matter how small) can cut right to the heart. The hesitant child has probably learned that sitting back and taking no risks is perhaps the best way to avoid this exposure. Once again, it isn’t about the child being unprepared and unwilling to participate. More likely it’s the manifestation of a child’s protective posture toward the class.

Think about why you call on students for answers

The common model of classroom interaction is based on the teacher asking a general question to the class, and a knowledgeable student raising a hand to answer that question. Now, I can go off on a tangent on that model’s failings (and now I have an idea for a future blog post), but to stay on point here: It’s important to note that relying on this question-and-answer strategy enables entire groups of children to sit out your class, and plays perfectly into the personality of the child who tends to hesitate.

Simply put, children may not be participating because your classroom dynamic doesn’t require it of them. Make sure you’re providing plenty of opportunity for participation and ways students can feel good about their contribution.

Reeling in the hesitant student

Now that we’ve established several reasons why students may hesitate in your class, let’s look at two things that can be done to bring everyone into the classroom fold:

Make everybody feel safe

Make sure your class knows your room is a safe place for everybody to participate. Actively encourage all students to join in during class discussions, and be sure to call on students randomly, as this keeps class attention and interest on you. Be quick to correct any actions that run contrary to your expectations, and set cultural expectations early and often.

Hopefully most teachers don’t need this reminder, but be sure to give sincere, positive feedback to those who do participate!

Find other ways to encourage participation

Speaking out loud isn’t the only way to participate in class. Think of other activities and strategies that will help students participate, including nontraditional assessments such as creating portfolios, websites and blogs that show an understanding of the class material.

Another strategy is to allow students who have a special skill to put it to use to show understanding. One time during my class reading of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” one of my quietest students created a wonderful miniature version of the apartment where Anne hid. He would hesitate to speak out loud, and I was proud to give him the opportunity to display his mastery of the content in a different way.

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