Social Skills Training: Unlocking Shyness One Step at a TIme

Shyness is a form of social anxiety. In its most extreme state, it is called Selective Mutism. Although rather cute as a young child, shyness can become quite painful as the child enters school where there are increased demands to speak. The earlier it is addressed, the easier it is to manage. Here are some useful tips for parents and teachers:


  • If situation related (e.g. abuse, trauma, or tragedy), professional help is recommended to treat the underlying anxiety. In the mean time, you can still do the following.
  • Take all pressure off. Allow spontaneous attempts to talk in natural conversations rather than following your commands.
  • Reinforce any attempts to talk by giving your full attention and response without comments such as, “good talking”. Respond to the content of speech, and not the act of speaking.
  • Use humor, emotion and music/rhyme to build on speech
  • Use either a younger child, a pet, or a toy figure/doll for your child to care for to shift the focus away from them.

Model without expecting a response, things you can say as the caregiver of that toy or pet, such as, “Come on Rover, time for your dinner”. Using dolls in a doll house is a classic way to facilitate speech/language output with little girls. Play can shift from child alone with you in the room, to playing with you, and finally generalizing to a conversation without the props.

Goal Setting

Set goals according to your child’s individual hierarchy of contexts from easiest to most difficult. Do not move to the next level until targeted goals are achieved at the easier level. Keep a journal to track progress.

Most difficult

Large unfamiliar group of peers
Large familiar group of peers
Outside the house with parent talking to a stranger
Small Group of familiar peers
Close friend during play date
Close relatives or family friends
Home with entire family
Home with only Mom

Most comfortable

Note: Your child’s hierarchy make look different from the above based on his/her own set of experiences and associations contributing to the speaking anxiety.

Ideas for Goals:
Will initiate conversation at least 3 times in 30 minutes
Will speak in an audible volume in that particular context
Will respond to questions using speech (vs. head nods, etc.) 80% of time
Will look at the listener when speaking
Will participate in activity at hand without prompting from adult


  • Seek input from the school social worker or psycholgist if you suspect an emotional issue that is not otherwise being addressed
  • Be careful about writing off expectations by labelling a child “shy”- It is not necessarily “all or nothing”
  • Avoid drawing attention to the child by suddenly calling on him/her
  • When a task requires each student to have a turn in speaking, then make it easier for the shy child by allowing a shorter response, or cueing with the 1st part of the answer
  • Determine what it takes for any success at speaking in school (a particular structure, an activity outside the classroom, cueing, working with a best friend, etc.), and build from that
  • Follow the hierarchy instructions above and modify for school contexts
  • Increase the child’s self confidence through class jobs and praise
  • Assign another student for the shy child to mentor to take the focus off of him/her
  • Communicate regularly with the child’s parents so that you can each be working towards the same goals, and/or using similar methods to help

Wait Your Turn offers teacher workshops, and individual and group therapy to treat shyness, and has developed a program for teens called, “Unmask the Face Behind Facebook”. The teen program focuses on public speaking, job and college interviewing, and informal conversational skills through either individual therapy or peer matching.

Judy Rosenfield

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