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Classroom Management for the Quiet Ones

James Paterson

When busy educators look back on their day – or even their school year – they often think about what they missed. They think about the classroom management technique that didn’t go well, the off-task student they could never get back on course, or the after-school study sessions they needed to schedule but didn’t. And one thing that often nags at them are those kids in the middle. They are the about-average ones who quietly do most of their work, sometimes underperform, and get caught between the superstar students and the behavior issues who need so much attention. It’s easy to feel there is a group of average, quiet kids that just gets overlooked, no matter how much classroom management we devote to them.

Marsha Pinto was one of them. “I just didn’t stand out. I did my work, but was just an average student and I was very quiet. That can make you almost invisible.”

She is now an advocate for introvert students like herself, and says schools are not always easy places for quiet students to learn and thrive. She notes that apart from the social challenges she faced, she often was not just overlooked, but was made to feel uncomfortable about being quiet, a double-whammy. “It didn’t bother me so much that I was quiet and didn’t get attention from teachers. That made it harder, but I was used to that. It bothered me that I was sometimes singled out because I didn’t feel comfortable participating as vocally as other students.”

Stephen Farenga, a professor at Queens College and one of the authors of the book “The Importance of Average, is more concerned that these students too often don’t succeed in the way they could, suggesting that education funding and teacher attention is dispensed in a lopsided way favoring those who achieve at high and low levels.

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“We have found that students who are not labeled above-average at the upper end or below average at the lower end are lumped together into one large unit and essentially ignored,” he says.

Classroom Management Tips to Consider

Here are some points to consider about those students in your class who you feel might fall into that category – and whose performance may suffering:

Don’t assume they want attention. Pinto says that often, introverted students (perhaps 30 percent of a class) are comfortable working quietly and may find it hard to speak up or even work in a group. They don’t fear others – they often prefer or need to work quietly alone. She recalls an elementary school teacher who often forced her to contribute, and even penalized her for not being more vocal.           

“I went home crying because she made me feel inferior, when I was actually doing the work and mostly succeeding,” Pinto says, noting that being an introvert is different than being shy, an emotional problem rather than just a preference.

But understand they might need help. Pinto and other experts note, however, that it is often difficult to know if a quiet student needs attention – or even if they could perform at a higher level with just a bit of assistance. There are times when quieter students don’t succeed because they don’t get attention or avoid it, but also times when they are sometimes just lazy, too. So teachers may need to figure out a strategy to help.

Teachers can get a better idea about the student’s ability and learning style by spending extra time examining their work or talking to them about their understanding of a topic. They can also check records about their performance in the past and talk with previous teachers and, especially, with parents.

And it might be helpful to understand introverts better generally. Susan Cain, one of the leaders of what’s become known as The Quiet Revolution and an advocate better understanding of introverts, is particularly concerned about their success in educational settings. Her newest book is aimed at young people specifically, and has a section for educators.

“When introverts are not fully appreciated or encouraged to leverage their strengths, schools miss opportunities and some students don’t succeed when they could,” she says.

Check in often, experts say, but in subtle ways. Get to know about these students even if they don’t give up information about themselves easily.

Provide help on their terms. If you know a student is unlikely to speak up, you might early in the year tell them (or the whole class) that they can signal if they are confused –  by raising a pencil or putting their hand on their head, for example. That means they want some help but don’t want to get the focus on themselves.

Audra Phillips, a math teacher and coach at Deering Middle School in West Warwick, R.I., says that despite their busy day with so many demands on their time, teachers need to make an extra effort with these students, especially if they sense they are struggling.

“Many of them need additional time and targeted or focused mini-lessons in the concepts and skills that may be holding them up,” she says. “It might not take much, but that time is so often not available in the middle school math class in a typical scheduling configuration, even if you are accomplished at differentiating.”

You might also find separate time to be available for a less demonstrative student, or a group. Marie Lunsford Davis, a math teacher at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, Md., often has quieter students in her classroom at lunch – sometimes getting help from her and sometimes just working quietly and knowing that she is available, or just avoiding the crush in the cafeteria.

Other teachers find these students are more comfortable contacting them through email or a text message to get help, or scheduling a time for it. They may also successfully put to use online resources that can reinforce or reteach a lesson, such as the Kahn Academy.

Personalized learning or online study or research where they can work more independently can be very helpful to students who don’t thrive in a traditional classroom or one where participation is emphasized.

Watch your reaction. Pinto says the way teachers responded to her (she often slouched, took every opportunity to read in class and rarely raised her hand) directly affected how she performed. A more introverted teacher who understood how she felt got her to work hard in her class – and even encouraged her to participate on a debate team where she excelled.

According to a 2012 report from the Education Commission of the States, teacher expectations may have an effect on these students who are near average and struggle, especially if they aren’t very visible in the classroom and have a history of under performance. Others have gotten similar results.

“Their expectations can cause teachers to … lower expectations for some students, providing briefer (or no) feedback on student errors – and less positive feedback after correct answers—and granting students less time to answer questions,” the report says, noting that such perceptions can lower grades as much as 10 percent.

Encourage them, respectfully. Jonathan Cheek a professor at Wellesley College and expert on shyness, says that we should, “Nudge but not push the quiet child toward broader social contacts, but through reward and not obligations.”           

“They should understand that a certain level of social communication skill is necessary and useful for the many times in their future that they will want to or need to interact with other people.”

Privately offer them opportunities to lead or be more visible in ways they might like – possibly assisting a teacher with handing out papers or running errands or leading in a group of similarly quieter students. They may actually be good leaders given the authority and also may like to perform. (Pinto loved debate – and many famous actors and sports stars are introverts.)           

Praise them too. These quiet students might not respond to much that you say – including praise. But it doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate it, says Cain, and it might benefit them as much or more.

“We could surprise you,” says Pinto.