What is Behind that Nervous Smile?

Kids come from all walks of life, carrying with them the burdensome baggage of their youthful experiences that only adults should have to deal with. One of my core beliefs in working with children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds is that, as much as we adults think we know what’s going on in their lives, there is so much of which we haven’t a clue.

It is with this thought in mind that I reflect on something that has interested me since I began teaching: Why are so many of my students incapacitated by poor self-image and shyness?

Back in the day, my fifth graders would sooner pass out from the heat in the room in June than take off their hoodies, which, I guess, served as security blankets to cover all the insecurities of their changing bodies.

This year, one of my girls is so painfully shy that when I ask her to come in front of the class to do something she knows how to do well, she just smiles at me and bolts herself to the chair. I have to encourage her ad infinitum before she even considers budging, and when she does, it is usually only because I’ve gone over to her and whispered in her ear or given her some other clue to know it’s safe and okay. It happened today when all the kids were clamoring for a chance to count out a pattern on the Smart Board. When it was her turn, she refused to come up (but performed expertly with me right there by her side once she made it).

She won’t smile in pictures. She averts her eyes everywhere but the camera, painfully darting them into the lens for split seconds at a time. It pains me. What can be so hurtful to a 7-year old as to cause her to become nearly incapacitated in these situations? Shouldn’t a smile be one of the easiest things to offer?

Why are this girl – and so many other children – paralyzed by the fear of failure and judgment at such a young age? Who is instilling this lack of confidence in them? And what can I do to help them break it?

The reason I bring this up today is because our Skype session with our Wisconsin buddies is approaching, and the fears I foretold in the early planning stages are beginning to rear their heads. Today we did a couple of practice runs, focusing on how to come up to the computer, look at the camera, and speak to the children on the other side. When it came to Jasmyn, who knows her question well enough to say it without looking, she just sat at her desk, unwilling (unable?) to move. She finally made it to the computer (with some prodding from me) and asked her question beautifully in a loud voice. So why the terror?

I am perplexed. If saying a simple 5-word question in front of a trusted teacher and classmates was so scary, how will it be to speak to strangers on Skype with the principal and APs in attendance? I am wary of pushing Jasmyn past her limits – but I am also confident that exposing her to these situations and letting her see they are not dangerous, and that she can handle them, will benefit her.

Am I right?


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