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Punished for Being Shy

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It turns out that my daughter has a little thing called "performance anxiety" -- but is that a crime?

shy girl

Dr. Wendy Walsh: I have a 6-year-old who is nothing like me. If you're familiar with my writing, you know that I am a shameless extrovert. Not my daughter. She is the quintessential wallflower. Even at 6, a sturdy, phonics-mastering first grader, she prefers to hang around mommy's skirts and stay mute much of the time. Eventually she does talk, and she has close friends, but it takes her a long time to warm up. In kindergarten, she didn't utter a word until after Christmas break. Her empathetic kindergarten teacher just kept handing her art projects and letting her communicate through art.

But not this year. First grade is a serious academic time. The make-or-break year for reading skills. And her teacher, a former marine with a reputation for running a no-nonsense first-grade boot camp, has drawn the battle lines. This child will not be allowed to be shy. It started with music class. In admonishing tones, the teacher informed me that my kid wouldn't sing, and followed up with the threat that she might get a failing grade in music. I actually laughed that one off. I couldn't imagine a Harvard entry board denying my smarty pants a place in college because her record showed a bad grade at age six. Then, since I didn't take it seriously, Ms. Drill Sergeant upped the ante. She began to send my kid to the principal's office for lip-synching!

Then the principal and the music teacher colluded in the war against my daughter's shyness. With her troops amassed, Ms. No Nonsense went one step further. When my little sensitive angel went mute in math class, one day the enraged teacher sent her (for the third time) to the principal's office, who in turn corralled her with "the other bad kids" (my daughter's words) and made them pick up trash in the schoolyard during lunch.

I'm taking a deep breath as I write this. Put on your intellectual brain, mama. So I Google the words "performance anxiety in children" and "social phobia." There is much to read. I find that my little one isn't so unique. This is a common stressor in young kids and can be treated with gentle group therapy and individual therapy. Social skills classes can give kids a boost too. And, above all, giving positive rewards rather than punishment is the best route to go.

In all fairness to that dedicated teacher, who has churned hundreds of successful kids through her very efficient mill, sometimes social anxiety can present itself as oppositional-defiant behavior. And when a child refuses to say "please and thank you," it can cause adults to feel offended and disrespected. I didn't say that interacting with my child is a pleasant experience. And when there is a class of 28 students, making special arrangements for one doesn't seem practical. I'll be having a heart-to-heart with the three-star general today. I'll let you know how it goes.


next: Does Eating Fish Make Kids Smarter?
14 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous February 1, 2010, 3:31 AM

Good luck mama. I’m a teacher with my own children with social anxiety. I’ve seen many a teacher not being able to understand these kind of kids while I’ve seen several who really do bring out the best in our “wallflowers”. Some personalities just work well and some don’t. It’s a shame they are being so tough on your child. Good luck with your drill Sargent.

chris February 1, 2010, 8:13 AM

I wish teachers would be more sympathic to this. In school, I was so afraid of reading out loud that I would take a failing grade in place of standing up and reading a book report. In high school, I would skip school to just avoid speaking out in class. Not everyone enjoys having all attention on them.

Anonymous Mom February 1, 2010, 8:54 AM

My mother used to bash my sister’s parenting skills because my niece never said “thank you.” Now I communicate with my niece online, and find out that she was painfully shy and still gets anxiety attacks at merely speaking on the phone, even though she is 28 and a mother herself now. I hope that the author’s child gets the help and understanding that she needs, so that she doesn’t grow up with these same anxieties built into her, like my poor niece has.

LizM February 1, 2010, 11:43 AM

Do whatever it takes to stop this now! My daughter’s first grade teacher screamed at my child constantly and made up excuses to count things wrong (like insisting to my daughter that “baseball” was not a compound word). Its taken 5 years, many prayers, an amazing karate sensei, and homeschooling to begin to repair the damage this teacher did to my shy child.

Karen McAllister February 1, 2010, 11:49 AM

Good luck! My kids are super shy too, and the teachers never seem to appreciate them for who they are compared to the other more outgoing kids.

casey February 1, 2010, 11:54 AM

Transfer your kid right now. The teacher isn’t going to change but you should. A mean teacher may get kids to read. But this is teaching not dog training. I am a teacher and parent and this pair just isn’t working. It’s like a bad blind date. Would you keep dating someone for 9 month if you hated him or her?

dmill February 1, 2010, 12:36 PM

I agree with those that say get your kid out of there. My daughter wasn’t shy, but she was afraid of new things and getting yelled at. I didn’t realize what was going on in my daughter’s first grade class until the summer after when she finally opened up about it to me. Her teacher was unapproachable and my daughter was afraid to ask for help when she needed it and many other things that just caused my daughter to close up. She had a terrible summer and 2nd grade year because she had terrible stomach trouble - later diagnosed as abdominal migraines that I attribute at least partially to the stress of first grade. She’s now in 3rd and thanks to understanding 2nd and 3rd grade teachers, she’s done well, but she’s still slightly behind academically because of how much time she missed. Like the post said, those teachers are good for some kids, but cause others to shut down - good luck learning that way.

Anna February 1, 2010, 1:35 PM

I was extremely shy as child, similar to your daughter. I rarely spoke and never made eye contact. Teachers were often hard on me for being shy. My first and third grade teachers would punish me for being shy and not making eye contact. My second grade teacher actually had enough nerve to use my shyness as an example of “poor social behavior” in a lesson about good in bad behavior. In my case my shyness was actually apart of a mental disorder, Asperberger’s syndrome, which I was diagnosed with at age twelve. Either way, mental problems or not, a teacher should never punish a child for being shy. I agree with every one else, transfer your child. As a child who was extremely shy, I suggest a smaller school or charter school, they are great. For high school I actually chose online school, which was the best choice, and I wish it was around for my elementary years.

Hip Mom's Guide February 1, 2010, 1:45 PM

This is absolutely not right. I am amazed that the principal backed up this sort of behavior. A first grade class room is not the place to scare a child or give her a complex about the way she’s made, for goodness sakes. I hope you see a change—or make one—pronto. Good luck!

Shirley Mcdonald February 1, 2010, 5:35 PM

I am a mother and I know this teacher very well. I have several comments: First,the teacher is not an ex marine-and never served in the military. Second, the teacher is nearly mobbed with hugs and warm embraces each morning by her students.This teacher is sensitive and caring and treat her students with respect and she instructs her students to respect each other and uses positive means to develop sensitivity to each others feelings.
But what is Mommie’s motive? Is this a parent attempting to resolve a personal matter in the public venue. How will that the private shy child feel when other point out her name and picture plastered all over the internet. Will that add to her performance aniety as described by Mommie Dearest? Is this really about Mommie Dearest taking advantage of a hard working teacher to advertise her Doctor of Psychology Title. Way to go mom, but is it the world’s business what did or did not go on in this classroom? There has never been any such history with this teacher. You and your child lose in my opinion.

tennmom February 1, 2010, 6:01 PM

It may be an overly-sensitive problem of the poster but I’ve always felt that the intentions of a person are not more justified as the way their actions make another person feel.
I was shy-ish as a young child, slow to warm, uncomfortable in new situations. I tried my best to keep my mom from leaving on my first day of Kindergarten. I was beyond afraid. Later, the teacher threatened to paddle me if I didn’t stop crying. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t remember the last time someone threatening me with physical violence made me feel better. To this day, I would tell her off if I saw her again.
I cried silent tears for 2 months after drop-off. The first day I managed to choke down my tears, Teacher said to the class “Look, A isn’t acting like a baby anymore!” That statement makes me want to find her and kick her.
My daughters haven’t had the same trouble to the extent I did but I’ve always let their teachers know that sometimes they do need a bit more time to warm up.
After I hit my mid-twenties I’ve been comfortable saying anything to anyone at any time. Some of us just need a little extra time to get to that point.

Christina February 1, 2010, 6:52 PM

Um, Shirley, I am a little confused here. First, are you saying you know the actual teacher to which the poster refers? Second, I haven’t noticed the child’s name mentioned anywhere in this article. Third, why would you assume that teachers are one-size-fits-all any more than children are? Every teacher has a different teaching style, just as every child has a different learning style. Sometimes the two do not mesh, and sometimes personalities do not mesh. So what works for your child may not work for another. Fourth (and finally), calling people by pejorative names such as “Mommie Dearest” does not exactly make you look good when you are attempting to present a differing point of view.

Melissa February 4, 2010, 1:57 PM

I find it deplorable for a teacher to send a kid in first grade to the Principal’s office for not singing out-loud (lip-synching). I think by lip-synching she was trying her best.

Furthermore the comment from Shirley Mcdonald sounds very negative and is a direct attack!

Melissa February 4, 2010, 2:02 PM

In response to… “Second, the teacher is nearly mobbed with hugs and warm embraces each morning by her students”…often times people pick one person to abuse in a crowd, even among their own children (usually the weakest link - like a shy person). Yes I said abuse this teacher is abusing this shy child and NOT any of the other children, this is all your (Shirley Mcdonald) comment proves.


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