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4 Steps to Get Shy Kids to Engage & Participate when Teaching Online

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Show Notes:

Ever since so many schools have had to go online, many teachers have been struggling with figuring out how to get their shy kids involved in online learning.

I think we need to really think about this from the child’s perspective because the reality is that doing class video conferences can cause a lot of anxiety for kids, and especially shy kids. According to a recent HuffPost article by Caroline Bologna, 

“Students might be worried about how they appear on camera or what their background looks like and what their peers are thinking.”

Answering questions in Google classroom can cause kids to feel incredibly self-conscious. I mean, think about how stressful it was for many of you to actually get on camera and start teaching online. If you don’t feel especially confident on camera or speaking in front of other people in person, which is most of the human population, taking the risk of speaking in front of your classmates can be incredibly hard for even the most outgoing kids.

As this HuffPost article notes, “it can be harder to feel a connection to the teacher and to the other students in the room. Our nonverbal communication, such as supportive nods and smiles of encouragement from other kids and the teacher, can be lost or hard to see in video conferencing.”

Even encouraging comments from their classmates that typically happen when you’re teaching in the classroom don’t often occur as naturally when you’re all online, and this is even more challenging when some students have spotty internet. 

So, how can we encourage all kids, not just our outgoing and socially gifted students, to start engaging more online?

Well, you literally need to teach an entire lesson that is strategically designed to show kids how they can engage and to feel safe engaging with you online – and to let them know that this is actually going to be a lot of fun. So here’s how:


Step #1: Normalize It & Start with Low-Risk Participation

The first step is to talk about this strange situation we're in to help your students to normalize what they’re feeling, and let them know that it’s weird for you, too.

Ask a series of simple yes or no questions that allow kids to participate in very simple, easy ways that don’t require a lot of risk from them, that aren’t a big ask in the beginning, and that don’t require a verbal response. 

For example, you could start with:

“I’ve noticed that it’s sometimes hard for us to start conversations when we’re here together online. Does it feel kind of weird to you to be interacting with your classmates and with me like this online?”

Encourage your students to respond with a thumbs up or a thumbs down, or typing a "Y" for Yes or an "N" for no if you’re using chat.

Keep it VERY simple, and make it very easy for them to respond. Don’t ask for a verbal response just yet.

Let them know that this is hard for you, too. Tell them:

“It’s sure weird for me. I’d much rather be with you in person.”
And then again, ask them a simple question that they can respond with a simple thumbs up or thumbs down, or with a Y for Yes or an N for no if you’re using chat.

So for example you could ask,
“Who else would rather be in our classroom than online right now?”

Then ask questions that help to validate your students’ feelings, so they know they aren’t alone in how they’re feeling, so for example:

"Okay, so let me know with a thumbs up or a thumbs down,
“Who ELSE feels kind of weird or self-conscious about being on camera?”
(Be sure to respond to each question yourself!)
“Who ELSE misses being with their friends?”

“Who ELSE is tired of being at home so much?”

And by the way, even if you’ve been teaching online for awhile now and this has been a challenge for you, it isn’t too late to do this with your students. It’s never too late to have a conversation that will help your students to feel more at home and more comfortable with this whole crazy situation you’re all in.


Step #2: Add Movement, Humor, and Genuine Praise 

Once you’ve gotten at least 3 or 4 simple, non-verbal responses from kids, what I love to do is to get kids moving, because when we’re feeling stressed, we hold it in our bodies, right?

How many of you can feel like a bar of stress across your shoulders when you’re feeling overwhelmed?

That’s so common for me, and it’s common for kids, too. One of the best ways to help kids loosen up and shake out that stress is literally by loosening up their bodies.

So, the next step is to make answering questions into a kind of a game by having them actually move in response to your questions, again, keeping the response to questions really low-key and easy, and not verbal yet.

So for example, you could say to your students,

“All right, so it sounds like we’re all feeling the same way. Man, it’s hard doing all of this online, but I think we can have a little bit of fun with this. Who’s up for that? Give me a big smile if you’re ready." 😊

"Who can put their arms straight out to the sides, just like me? Show me if you know how to do that.”

Of course, any time you can ask a silly question, you’re going to help kids to relax even more. And then start really praising your kiddos for participating with you, calling out to your especially shy students things like,

“Oh my gosh Jessica, I love how your arms are straight out like that. You are so good at that. And Jacob, just look at you, you little smarty pants. Your arms are so nice and straight!”

Wait until everyone has done that with you and then say,

“Wow, I have a very smart group of students here. So many of you even know how to move your arms. So far you all get an A+. Now for the hard part. How many of you can put your arms straight up in the air, like this?”

Again, model for them how to do that and have some fun with this by praising them for how smart they are to know how to put their arms up in the air, calling out specific kids who are especially good at it.

Then let them know that for these next questions, if their answer to the question is “Yes,” they are going to put their arms straight up in the air. If their answer is “No,” they are going to put their arms straight out to the sides.

Then, ask a series of questions with clear answers, and likely, your class clowns will start lightening things up at this point. So ask questions like,

“Your teacher’s name is Mrs. Friesen (or whatever your name is).”
We all clearly know the answer to this question, and everyone can participate easily.

“We are all in grade 2." (or 3, or whatever grade you’re teaching).
“We are all animals in a zoo.” (Now of course, most of your students will have their arms out to the side, except those who are willing to be silly now).

“We live in Kentucky (or whatever state you live in).”

“We are in college.”

“Mrs. Friesen loves us very, very much, even if we can’t all be together right now.”

Step #3: Create a Meaningful Class Goal to Build Community 

Next, one of the reasons that kids don’t participate as much as they’d perhaps like to is because they don’t quite feel like they belong yet, and one of the fastest and most effective ways I’ve learned to get kids to bond together and create a feeling of safety and community is to encourage them to work towards a class goal.

I’ve also learned that the fastest way to get kids talking is to make it really enticing for them to do so. 😊

So, now that you’ve had 100% participation from all of your students so far, you can start asking for verbal responses that are tied to something really fun. And that last part is really important. If you want kids to engage, you need to ensure that you are tying their participation to something that is really worth the risk of their participation.

I’m not sure what kind of motivator systems you’ve tried in your classroom, but I love to experiment with all kinds of different motivational systems, and I’m always trying new ones. For the month of November, which is when I’m writing this blog post, I love to use my Thanksgiving Mystery Motivator. Just click here or on the pic below to see this product inside my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

By the way, I’m constantly releasing new motivation ideas and systems inside my TpT store, so if you love trying different things with your students each month or every couple of months, go and check out my store.

What I've learned over the year that’s so interesting is that what works beautifully with one group of students does not work at all with the next – it can be so infuriating – but it’s also fun to keep trying different things until you discover what works with the group that you’re currently teaching.

However, I have to tell you that no matter what grade I’m teaching, Mystery Motivators work, and the reason I think they work so well, especially with super shy kids, is because kids need to really work to get the reward.

Basically, Mystery Motivators are a giant poster (or a giant digital poster), covered with 60 squares or sticky notes, and hidden somewhere on the poster under the sticky notes is a surprise class reward. The kids all need to work together to earn the right to remove the sticky notes from the poster until they’ve removed all of the sticky notes and earned their reward.

The reason I think this works so well is because it’s in the journey of getting to the reward that is so valuable, especially for kids who are typically super shy and it takes a little more time for them to take the risk that’s required to earn something for the class.

Shy kids are much more willing to take that risk if they know that there is a positive association tied to taking that risk, and especially if they know it’s going to help their class to earn something special, something that they can all enjoy together. This is especially meaningful now, when kids are really missing those opportunities to enjoy experiences together with their friends and with their classmates.

So, if it were me trying to get my class to feel more like a unit and if I were working to create an environment where everyone feels safe to take risks, my natural next step would be to ask my class to brainstorm and dream together:

"What are some amazing rewards that our class could work towards?"

By the way, if you don’t already have my freebie, 20 Amazing Class Reward Ideas to use when you’re teaching online, you can grab your copy of this freebie by clicking below:

Next, ask a series of questions tied to rewards that your class can work towards by participating in discussions and by following class rules.

Again, start with simple yes or no questions that kids can answer using their hand signals or their thumbs up/thumbs down. So here’s what I would say,

“All right my amazing kiddos, I’ve been thinking. Wouldn’t it be fun to all work towards something special that we could all enjoy together? Show me with your arms straight up in the air if you think that would be fun.”

"Okay, I’m going to ask you some questions, and if your answer to my question is a yes, show me what you’re going to do. (That’s right, put your arms up straight in the air)."

"And what are you going to do if your answer is no? (Awesome, Brayden, yes, you are going to put your arms out side to side. All right, are you ready?"

My first question is:

Who would think it would be pretty awesome to have a surprise guest visitor come to our class?

Who would love for me to take you on a virtual field trip in my car to take you to a surprise place?
Who would love for me to teach you how to bake my favorite cookies of all time?

Now for this next question, you will need to answer with your voice:
Who has another idea for a reward that our class could work for?

(Be sure to record these ideas on chart paper so you and your students can see it).

By now, your very outgoing kiddos will likely be bursting to share their ideas, and even some of your shyer kids might be willing to share because they’ve gotten into the habit of responding to your questions in a simple and low-risk way. But even if they don’t yet, they will likely be feeling much more a part of the group.

Once you’ve gathered some ideas from your class, choose 5 that you can live with, and number them from 1 to 5.

Have your class chorally read, out loud, the 5 that you have chosen.

Then, tell your students that they will get to choose 3 that they love the most. Give them a few moments to think about which 3 they like the most, and then go from child to child, asking them to verbally tell you the three that they are voting for by telling you the numbers.

So for example, they might say, 2, 3, and 5 or 1, 2, and 4, or whichever 3 numbers they love the most. Put a tally mark beside each number that they say, and then you’ll know, by the end of the voting, which 3 they are most willing to work for.

Show them your Mystery Motivator poster, covered with 60 sticky notes (or virtual sticky notes), and tell them that their surprise reward will be hidden under the sticky notes on that poster. Each time they get involved and answer questions during class, and each time they show you that they know how to follow the class rules, you will let them remove one sticky note until they’ve earned their reward.

Emphasize that we will need to work together as a class in order to earn this reward, and that you will be most willing to remove sticky notes when they do things that are hard for them. When they take risks and get involved, even when it’s scary, and that you promise to support them and encourage them every step of the way because we are a family, even though we are not in our classroom.

Ask your students to give you a big thumbs up or put their arms in the air if they understand and if they’re willing to try, and then celebrate that by removing their first 3 sticky notes.


Step #4: Reward Every Risk Your Students Take with Love & Positivity

Moving forward, each time you are asking for participation during online classes, it’s just a simple reminder of something positive tied to taking a risk when you say,

“Now who can tell me the answer to this question? (Whatever you’re studying or working on with your kids), “Oh my gosh I’d love to remove one of our sticky notes. I wonder who will earn that for us by taking a risk and answering?”

Reward every small risk that your students take.

Now, even if you still get resistance from some of your kids when you introduce the Mystery Motivator, you can use a digital spinner that will randomly select students to answer. Just click here to create your own digital spinner now!

But even more than this, continually praising your students for taking risks, even when it’s hard, and continuing this conversation ongoing about risks that you are taking, like teaching online and learning how to use Zoom and figuring out a new app or a new technology, and modeling for your students that you too are taking risks every day, is going to go a long way towards encouraging and supporting your shy students to take risks as well.


All right, I hope that was helpful for you, and I hope you can take what you’ve learned and apply it to your teaching right away. Please go ahead and comment to let us know what has worked for you with kids who are shy to get them more engaged when you're teaching online?

I hope you have a wonderful week, and remember: Just because you're a beginning elementary teacher, there's no need for you to struggle like one.

πŸ’› Lori

P.S. Do you need a little bit of help with your classroom management? It's never too late to start streamlining your routines and create your self-running classroom.

Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor

Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at and at

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