Using a targeted programme to support quiet shy and anxious learners

Picture of Susan and Rhiannon

As we return to the bustle and busyness of a new term, this timely blog post examines research on shy or quiet children who can often be overlooked in loud and fast learning environments. Dr Susan Davis and Dr Rhiannon Packer are both Senior Lecturers in Education at Cardiff Metropolitan University. They examine research that suggests that shy or quiet learners receive less attention from teachers and the children’s behaviour can be misinterpreted. If you are an Early Years, Primary, or Secondary practitioner there is also the opportunity to be part of new research that investigates how an intervention strategy could support quiet, shy, or anxious learners. For more information, please contact Susan and Rhiannon by email:

Think about the learners in your class.  Can you name them all?  Think about the ones that you have forgotten or have missed off your list.  They are probably the most unobtrusive members of the class; those who rarely, if ever, question, and who quietly get on with any work that you set them.  These children, as well as being quiet, may also be shy and anxious.  While, in essence, there is nothing wrong with being quiet, for some children not being able to voice their feelings or to express themselves in the classroom can be frustrating and demoralising.  Cain (2013) highlights the unique qualities of quiet children, and how it is ironic, that often, their quiet natures mean that they do not put themselves forward or draw attention to their gifts and abilities.

Some children may be quiet and shy on occasions, or anxious some of the time. Their shyness may cause them anxiety. Shyness and anxiety do not necessarily go hand in hand, but often one perpetuates the other. There is an established body of published research into children’s shyness, mostly from a psychological viewpoint, but it seems that everyday issues and the experiences of shy children in the primary school are less well documented.

Picture of a child reading alone from a sheet of paper
Quiet children are often happy to work alone

Most young children experience some level of shyness or anxiety in their early years. As adults we forget that the young child will experience many situations and experiences which are unique to them. They will also undergo landmark occasions, such as starting nursery or school, or their first experience of being separated from close carers. Unfortunately, it seems that as part of this process of initial social participation, some children may be reticent to engage with others and are then labelled in a negative way. They may be thought of as ‘anxious, quiet and behaviourally inhibited, particularly in unfamiliar social situations’ (Schmidt & Tasker, 2000, p.30). This may lead to people behaving differently towards them, and putting negative behavioural expectations upon them. In an educational context, it is apparent that teachers’ attitudes and beliefs can both directly and indirectly influence children’s social, emotional, and academic development (Fang, 1996;  Kirkpatrick et al. 2020; Vartuli, 1999).

In their research on quiet children in elementary school, Coplan et al (2011, p.939) found that ‘teachers were more likely to respond to exuberant/talkative children with high-powered, social learning strategies and to employ peer-focused and indirect strategies for shy/quiet children’ thus targeting the talkative children, whilst engaging less directly with the quiet children.  More worryingly, they also found that the teachers assumed shy/quiet children were less intelligent and would achieve less academically than would exuberant/talkative children. There is also evidence of potential long-term consequences of being quiet, shy or anxious (QSA) on academic, social and psychological development where individuals feel thwarted or restricted because they are quiet, shy and anxious (Beesdo-Baum et al., 2012; Baardstu et al., 2019).

Picture of children working together in a small group
Small group work benefits QSA children

Our current research in this area is based upon a doctoral study by Davis (2012) which highlighted the effectiveness of a targeted intervention programme called ‘Special Me Time.’ Programme sessions were child led and delivered over a period of six weeks to small groups of young children who had been identified by their teachers as being QSA.  The programme provided space and time for learners to interact with each other and at their own pace, undertaking a range of simple activities. The activities were progressive in terms of input required, and practitioners had flexibility to adapt them according to individual needs.  The programme aimed to promote constructive relationships between learners, their peers and practitioners, providing an opportunity to foster positive self-esteem and confidence, with the outcome of empowering them to become active participants in the classroom.

Picture of materials used for activities with children
Examples of multi-sensory activities from the SMT programme

Following on from the success of the SMT programme, we are planning to expand on this research, and we will be looking at whether the intervention will support learners who are QSA, who also have specific learning difficulties (SEN). After securing ethics for the study, a call went out using social media to practitioners who would be interested in participating in the research.  The initial focus was primary school settings, using the SMT intervention programme designed for Early Years (0-7 year olds) and another intervention entitled ‘Quality Me Time’ for Key stage 2 (8-11 year olds).  However, a significant number of secondary practitioners contacted us asking whether they could participate as they felt that there were learners in their settings who would benefit from a small-scale intervention.  As a consequence, the study has been expanded to incorporate learners from Key stage 3 (11-14 year olds) and materials are being developed in conjunction with practitioners for implementation. If you are a practitioner and are interested in being part of the study, please contact us.

In Wales, we are moving towards implementing our new curriculum, this will become statutory in 2022.  An important strand within this, is the area of learning relating to health and wellbeing, which will require that practitioners recognise good health and wellbeing as important to enable successful learning.  Markovic et al., (2012) tell us that shy children are at risk of socio-emotional difficulties which include low self-esteem, and becoming anxious when internalising problems, this impacts on their wellbeing. Many of the studies on children and young people who are quiet, shy or anxious (QSA) tend to focus on the impact of these behaviours on individuals, and in relation to self-esteem for example (Crozier, 2014; Poole et al., 2018).  It is therefore imperative that we continue to shine a light on how to support the unique needs of QSA learners and this area of education, which like the shy child is often overlooked.

Author Short Biographies

Picture of Dr Susan Davies

Dr Susan Davis is a Senior lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University. She was formerly an early years teacher in school and has worked in FE at Coleg Gwent and at the Open University on their Child Development programmes, before moving to Cardiff Met in 2004. Her research interests include the learner journey for quiet, shy and anxious children and the experiences of BAME learners.


Picture of Dr Rhiannon Packer

Dr Rhiannon Packer is a Senior Lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University. She worked for nine years as a secondary school teacher and was a Head of Year before moving into Higher Education. Her research interests include transition in education for learners with Additional Learning Needs, the learner journey for quiet, shy and anxious children, supporting learners with Specific Learning Difficulties and bilingualism.


  • Baardstu, S., Coplan, R.J., Evalill, B.K., Odilia, M.L. & Tilmann von Soest (2019) ‘Longitudinal Pathways from Shyness in Early Childhood to Personality in Adolescence: Do Peers Matter?’,  Journal Research on Adolescence, 30 (S2), pp.362-379, [online], DOI:
  • Beesdo-Baum, K., Knappe, S., Fehm, L., Höfler, M., Lieb, R., Hofmann, S. G. & Wittchen, H. (2012) ‘The natural course of social anxiety disorder among adolescents and young adults’, Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 126 (6), pp.411–425, [online], DOI:
  • Cain, S. (2013) Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop talking. NY: Random House.
  • Coplan, R.J., Hughes, K., Bosacki, S. & Rose-Krasnor, L. (2011) ‘Is Silence Golden?  Elementary School Teachers’ Strategies and Beliefs Regarding Hypothetical Shy/Quiet and Exuberant/Talkative Children’,  Journal of Educational Psychology, 103 (4), pp.939-951, [online], DOI:
  • Crozier, W.R. (2014) ’Differentiating Shame from Embarrassment’, Emotion Review, 6 (3), pp.269-276, [online], DOI:
  • Davis, S. (2012) Examining the Implementation of an Emotional Literacy Programme on the Pedagogy and Reflective Practice of Trainee Teachers. EdD Thesis. Cardiff Metropolitan University. Available at:
  • Fang, Z. (1996) ‘A review of research on teacher beliefs and practices’, Educational Research, 38 (1), pp.47–65, [online], DOI:
  • Kirkpatrick, A., Rose-Krasnor, L., Ooi, L.L. & Coplan, R.J. (2020) ‘Coaching the Quiet: Exploring Coaches’ Beliefs about Shy Children in a Sport Context’, Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 47 (1), pp.1-9, [Online]
  • Markovic, A., Rose-Krasnor, L. & Coplan, R. J. (2013) ‘Shy children’s coping with a social conflict: The role of personality self-theories’, Personality and Individual Differences, 54 (1), pp.64-69, [online], DOI:
  • Poole, K.L., Van Lieshout, R.J., McHolm, A.E., Cunningham, C.E. & Schmidt, L.A. (2018) ‘Trajectories of Social Anxiety in Children: Influence of Child Cortisol Reactivity and Parental Social Anxiety’, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 46 (1), pp.1309-1319, [online], DOI:
  • Schmidt, L.A. & Tasker, S.L. (2000) ‘Childhood shyness: Determinants, development and ‘depathology’’ in Crozier, W.R. (ed.) Shyness: Development, consolidation, and change, p.30–46. London: Routledge.
  • Vartuli, S. (1999) ‘How early childhood teacher beliefs vary across grade level’, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 14 (4), pp.489–514, [online], DOI:

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