How to Mentor Your Shy Scholar




 Shyness Background

“Shyness is the tendency to feel awkward, worried, or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people.  Severely shy people may have physical symptoms like blushing, sweating, a pounding heart or upset stomach; negative feelings about themselves; worries about how others view them; and a tendency to withdraw from social interactions.” Adapted from the Encyclopedia of Psychology by the American Psychological Association


Possible causes for extreme shyness:


  • Growing up in an environment that is not emotionally fit for the Scholar
  • Frequent moves or abrupt changes in family dynamics
  • Negative parental expectations
  • Highly competitive environments at school or home where dominance behavior is rewarded and failures are publicly displayed
  • Genetics?
    Shy physiological characteristics can show up in children as young as two months old, indicating that there might be a slight genetic predisposition towards shyness.  However, the environment in which a child is raised tends to be more influential in developing extreme shyness


While most people will experience shyness at some point in their life, very few experience extreme, debilitating shyness.  When shyness is extreme to the point of interfering with daily activities, it may be a social phobia.  A 2011 study showed that 6-10% of American teens suffer from social anxiety.  If this is the case with your Scholar, you may want to seek professional help.  If they don’t kick the habit before adulthood there can be some troubling side effects.


People who experience painful shyness as an ongoing issue in their adult life tend to:


  • show less interest in others
  • show fewer verbal and non-verbal emotions
  • date less
  • For men, take longer to establish stable relationships
  • View themselves as unattractive –regardless of how others rate their attractiveness, and
  • 10-20% lack basic social skills


In their professional lives, extremely shy adults:


  • work less suitable jobs
  • for lower salaries than their less-shy peers, and 
  • are more likely to be passed by for promotions. 


While there has been no documented correlation between shyness and grade point average, shy students are less likely to seek academic and career guidance because of the verbal communication skills necessary to take advantage of these services.


However, all quiet Scholars may not be shy Scholars.  Many people who may be branded as “shy” by others are really just introverts.



Introversion vs. Shyness

“Shyness is about a fear of social judgment; introversion is more about how you respond to stimulation.” Susan Cain, TED Talk “The power of introverts”


While most shy people are introverts, not all introverts are shy.  A “preference for solitude” does not mean that the person is shy; in its simplest form introversion is the preference for recharging in non-social situations.  Introverts do not have any trouble expressing themselves and interacting socially, they simply find it tiring.  Introversion also does not have the same connection with negative adult outcomes that shyness does.


Some shy people can even be extroverts.  A shy extrovert will excel in social situations when there are prescribed roles and few opportunities for spontaneity, but become painfully shy when the situation is ambiguous in terms of social roles or control must be shared.


So how do you know if your Scholar is shy or introverted (or both)?  There are several online quizzes at the end of this article to identify your Scholar’s introversion and shyness indices.  During one of your match meetings you can both take them and share your results.


Introverts will:


  • Dislike being the center of attention
  • Rarely initiate conversation
  • Use their long-term memory more than their short term memory, so as a result:
  • Require time to process information so that they can gather unconscious data and synthesize a response
  • Are quiet in new social situations, but can be quite chatty when they are comfortable
  • At times will look glazed over or overwhelmed if they are in a situation with too much stimulus; but if they are allowed time to process the information will:
  • Dive in deeply to topics because they prefer to:
  • Gather information


In conversations they will often:


  • Make eye contact while listening, but not while speaking
  • Pause for long periods of time to hunt for words
  • Choose to remain silent rather than give an incomplete response
  • Speak softly
  • Stop talking when interrupted and don’t restart once the interruption ends



Tips for meeting with Introverted Scholars
  • Never interrupt.
    When your Scholar pauses, make sure that they are completely finished with their thought before adding your two cents.  They could be pausing to think over their next comment, which is completely derailed if you jump in.  If you interrupt frequently they are likely to feel unheard, and will share even less.

  • Give them time to think after asking a question.
    You shouldn’t expect an immediate response out of them.  If you are a fast-talking extrovert you may have to pause for what feels like an obscenely long time, but you will get a more thoughtful response if you allow your Scholar the time to formulate a response.  In this same vein, don’t pepper them with a series of questions if they don’t answer the first.

  • Discuss your own thoughts and feelings.
    Introverts are often more in touch with their internal self and will appreciate you sharing some of your inner thoughts.  Often, this is what they can relate to the most easily.

  • Supply them with new information on a favorite topic.
    Introverts tend to be information gatherers, and one of the quickest ways to show that you hear them and care about them is to bring them new information on a topic that they mention. 



Tips for Both Introverted and Shy Scholars

Even though there are major differences between shyness and introversion, there are some things that will work in both situations when you’re starting off with your Scholar.


  • Create ground rules about your relationship about confidentiality, judgment, what everyone is expected to share, etc.
    This allows shy Scholars to understand their role in the relationship and reassures introverted Scholars of your commitment.

  • Be patient! 
    While hardly the most satisfying response, both shy and introverted Scholars may take longer to get to know than extroverted, confident Scholars.  However, when you take the time to coax them out of their shell you have the potential to make an enormous impact on their lives.

  • Find common interests and design activities around them.
    This is great advice for any relationship, but particularly with Scholars who are less comfortable shooting the breeze.

  • Choose your conversation topics before the meeting.
    If you outline the conversation topics and expectations before the meeting shy Scholars have the opportunity to compose their responses beforehand, giving them the guidelines they need to be able to converse.  Introverted Scholars will appreciate doing something like reading the same book or watching the same movie, then discussing it during the meeting.  This will allow them the time to process the information and examine it in detail.  They will be able to formulate more extensive responses if they have the chance to think about it.

  • Volunteer.
    Volunteering forces Scholars to interact with others, but in a predesigned situation where everyone has a role.  This takes some of the anxiety out of a social situation by offering both the opportunity to be sociable with in defined parameters and the option of focusing on the volunteer activity in solitude.

  • Talk about it.
    Discuss what good conversation is and isn’t and how their communication (or lack thereof) is making you feel.  Your Scholar can’t read your mind, and it’s possible that they don’t recognize that they’re making you uncomfortable.  It could be that they feel uncomfortable but are worried that you aren’t.  Calmly discussing how you feel and what you both can do to make you feel better allows them the opportunity to see your side of the conversation.  If you do discuss this, be sure to focus on their strengths, not what they do “wrong.”  Lead the conversation by example, then talk about what you did to be a “good conversationalist.”

  • Compliment them when they are good conversationalists.
    While introverts do not have the trouble expressing themselves that shy Scholars do, you should still reinforce when they are able to respond quickly to a question or speak at a more audible volume.  For both shy and introverted Scholars being able to express themselves and converse comfortably with everyone is a valuable skill, especially when it comes to interviews.  For shy Scholars: If they ask you a question or engage in a way that is more sociable be sure to let them know that you appreciate it.  Shy Scholars may also have self-esteem issues, so giving them positive feedback about specific tasks or activities that they do well can help boost their confidence.



Tips for Interacting with a Shy Scholar

If your Scholar is truly shy, you may be in for a commitment!



  • Persist.
    It may take a lot longer to get there, but if you can help your shy Scholar be more comfortable with you, you’re teaching them a skill to help them for life.

  • Communicate that you’re interested in them, not their behavior or performance.
    Many people are shy because they believe that everyone is constantly judging their performance, so they will likely enter your relationship with the same attitude.  In their minds, it is better to remain silent than risk committing a social or behavioral faux pas.  Even though it may be an easy subject, keep questions about their grades or other performance-based topics for later in the relationship when they feel more comfortable with you.

  • Talk to their parent or guardian.
    If they are shy to the point of non-communication, their parent or guardian can be your greatest ally (along with your Match Specialist).  Ask if they are this uncommunicative at home.  If they aren’t, then you are likely still in their “strangers” group and will have to work hard to prove to them that you are in it for the long haul.

  • Choose task-based activities.
    Shy Scholars will feel the pressure most acutely when the only objective of the meeting is “converse.”  Avoid choosing activities like eating a meal together or taking a walk in favor of task-based projects.  Cook the food together, do a craft together, play a video game, update their resume on Career Cruising, etc.  This provides a topic of conversation but also allows them an escape from speaking if they need it.

  • Choose fact-based or open ended questions.
    When trying to get your Scholar to open up, it’s best to start with factual questions that they can answer without having to reveal too much emotion or think too hard, like “How many siblings do you have?” etc.  When you’ve exhausted those, be sure that your questions don’t have a “right” or “wrong” response.  Remind your Scholar that the only wrong answer is no answer.

  • Let them choose the topic of conversation.
    But also be prepared for them to be indecisive and not choose a topic.  If that’s the case, narrow down the choices.  If they don’t speak about a topic, move on for the moment until they bring it back up.



  • Lecture or assign blame.
    Odds are that your Scholar already believes that anything that goes wrong is their fault, an idea that you shouldn’t reinforce.  Even if you’re frustrated with their lack of communication you should remember that they probably wish that they could speak up more, and you don’t need to tell them what they already know.  Instead, concentrate on how they’ll be able to improve or on sharing your own feelings.  Avoid assigning labels to them; rather, ask them to describe themselves. 

  • Push them to speak.
    If they don’t respond to a question or join in on a topic after one or two prompts, don’t push them for more information.  Instead of opening up, this is likely to make them shut down even more.

  • Put them in large or unfamiliar social situations.
    In an unfamiliar social situation is when they’ll feel the most pressure to respond and the anxiety will likely make them withdraw.  Until they are more comfortable with you one-on-one, keep encounters fairly solitary.  Even better, bring in their friends (especially if they’re friends with another Starfish Scholar) to put them at ease.

  • Forget that this is a common issue.
    Everyone has felt shy at some point in their life, so work hard to remember that this is not a problem specific to your Scholar.  They may feel it in more extreme ways than you ever have, but that does not make them abnormal.  When in doubt, assume that it is something that you are doing that makes them so close-mouthed around you and work to make them more comfortable. 


If after speaking with your Scholar they admit that they feel shy or suffer from social anxiety, work with them to create a specific, manageable behavioral or conversational goals and a plan to achieve them.  This can be as simple as the expectation that every meeting they have to ask you one question and respond to one question with more than three sentences.  What’s important is that you come up with the plan together and that you evaluate it every few meetings.  If it doesn’t seem to work it may be too big a step for your Scholar.  If this is the case, take a step back and choose another, smaller goal.


One of the best ways to get help for working with a shy or introverted Scholar is, of course, contacting your Match Specialist.  If you want to see our sources or do some of your own research, check out the links below.


To see our sources, click here.



Shyness Reading List:


Shyness Questionnaire (your results are the bottom row of the results table; a number between 1 and 5 where 1 is very little shyness and 5 is extreme shyness):


Quiet Quiz: Are You an Introvert or an Extrovert (from Susan Cain’s book Quiet; 12 questions):


Myers-Briggs Style free online Personality test (72 question Jung Typology Test)


Encyclopedia of Mental Health “Shyness” Entry:


 Painful shyness guide from APA:


Body Lanugage and Feelings of Power:
"Your body language shapes who you are" TED Talk - Amy Cuddy




Special thanks to Laura Davidson and Brieyonna Gamble.


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