HomeHealth & BehaviorSocial Skills

Ask the Experts

How Do I Help a Shy Child?

By Dr. Michelle Alvarez, Consulting Educator


My daughter is extremely shy. She will not talk to her teachers. Instead she pokes them and then whispers something she needs. She won't speak to the other students either, unless spoken to. On the playground, she finds something to do to look busy because she is usually alone. At home, she plays very well with her younger sisters and cousins. How can I get her to interact with others?


I would choose one setting at a time and work on that. I would begin with the school setting since other than home she spends most of her time there. I would set up a meeting with school personnel to assist you in this task.

If there is a school social worker, school counselor or school psychologist who would assist you and the teacher in collecting data to clearly define the problem at school, then ask for that person's assistance. Ask the counselor or psychologist to do a series of observations to see if there is a time when your daughter is speaking to other students. You are looking for a time when she is talking, even whispering.

Have her observed in class at different times of day and during unstructured time at lunch and recess. If you can identify times when she is talking, or at least whispering, then you want to look at why she feels comfortable talking at that time. Make sure she is praised whenever she talks or whispers. Graph the results; this becomes your ruler for measuring improvement. Now, along with school personnel try some things to increase the number of times she is appropriately talking or whispering at school. Here are some ideas:

  • Ask the teacher to pair her up with another student whenever possible either to help the other student who is struggling with an assignment, or to work collaboratively with a student on the assignment.
  • Ask for an older student to be assigned as a peer mentor to meet with your daughter whenever possible to build a relationship.
  • Encourage your daughter to participate in after-school activities.
  • If no after-school programs are available at the school, consider enrolling your daughter in an outside activity that requires teamwork.
  • Ask the school if the school social worker, school counselor or school psychologist might be willing to work with your daughter on communication skills.
  • Ask the teacher to reward your daughter for communicating appropriately with her and other students with privileges that she is willing to work for, such as eating lunch with the teacher, helping the teacher after school, eating lunch with the principal or a favorite teacher, or running something to the office.

Once you have tried the ideas that best match your situation for at least two months, have your daughter observed again to see if there is an increase in the number of times she talks or communicates appropriately with the teacher and her peers. Graph the results and compare them to results of the first observation. Continue to seek ideas from school personnel to assist you until the situation improves. If your daughter begins to talk less or there is no improvement, consult your family physician.

Dr. Michelle Alvarez is an adjunct professor at the University of Southern Indiana and project director of Safe Schools/Healthy Students for the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation. A former school social worker in Pinellas County, Florida, she is co-editor of School Social Work: Theory to Practice and chair of the National Association of Social Workers, School Social Work Section. She is also the parent of a special needs child.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"well i dont talk i dont know why and because i need braces i going in 10 grade in 2 monthes and i really want to talk to people but i get to shy i go to a speech therpies at school anything that could help me with this promblem please reply back"
"We thought my daughter was just shy, especially when her kindergarten teacher told us that she didn't talk at ALL her first month of school! After about six months of this, I read an article in the NY Times about selective mutism. We went to her pediatrician who never heard of the disorder before, and referred us to a child psychologist. After a few months of therapy, she blossomed into a happy talkative child, first with her peers, then her teacher, and now, in second grade, other adults. She is doing wonderfully."