Students who get nervous speaking in class

June 19, 2013

Many children (and adults) feel nervous about speaking in public. In fact it is one of the most searched and read topics on the Psych4Schools website.

Teachers tend to be most concerned about those children who fear speaking publicly in all situations, including reading aloud or answering questions in class, but are also seeking guidance about how to support those who only fear formal class presentations or other whole school performances.

Children who lack confidence speaking in public are fearful that others will judge them harshly or negatively. Their thoughts tend to focus on and exaggerate possible negative outcomes they think may occur. Typical thoughts may include ‘Everyone will think I’m stupid’, ‘I’ll forget what I’m going to say’, ‘No one will like my talk and then no one will want to play with me, and then I won’t have any friends’ or ‘I’ll ‘go red’ and everyone will think I’m a loser.’

Four strategies to support the child who fears speaking in class are listed below. For more examples refer to the Psych4Schools ebooklet Working with children who lack confidence speaking publically.

Empathise with the child and acknowledge their fears. Talk with the child or the class about the fears most people face when speaking publicly, such as fear of being ridiculed or laughed at, not being good enough, not remembering what to say, or people thinking what you say is incorrect or silly.

Praise the child when they engage in class discussion. Use specific, labelled praise to identify aspects of the answer or presentation you liked, even if the content was not all correct. For example, ‘I liked the way you joined in our discussion’, or ‘Thank you, Jordan, I liked the way you used personal examples to illustrate your point.’

• Prompt the child before asking them to speak to the class. Speak privately with the child before the lesson and tell them which section of the book, or the specific question you will be calling on them to answer. If the child is especially anxious it can be useful to practice the child’s reading or answer with them. It is helpful to ask the child to speak within the first few minutes of the class to reduce the build up of anxiety.

Create an insult-free-zone. Make it clear that it is rude and unacceptable to talk, laugh at or make fun of someone who is presenting. Set appropriate consequences for rudeness, such as apologising to the person in writing or completing a written ‘reflection sheet’ where the unacceptable behaviour is reflected on in relation to a school rule or school value.

Some children will be so anxious about speaking in class that they will refuse to talk at all, or only choose to talk to a small trusted number of people. To read more about assisting these children read the Psych4Schools ebookletWorking with children who are selectively mute