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October 31, 2014 at 5:00 AM

NYU research: Don’t punish students for their temperaments

It’s easy to overlook and underestimate shy children, and they can suffer academically because they aren’t the squeaky wheel getting the grease.

But you can’t just force them out of their shells anymore than you can turn an antsy kid who easily flips out into someone who handles stress calmly and quietly.

Sometimes parents and teachers believe a shy kid (or a typically jumpy kid prone to disruption) can just be forced to change. But core personality traits ­— a complex amalgam of genetics and early experience — can’t just be transformed on command to fit the requirements of school.

“To discipline or punish a child for their temperament is really cruel because that’s not going to change,” said Sandee McClowry, a professor of counseling psychology at New York University.

So rather than trying to change a child’s temperament to fit the school, McClowry is looking for ways that schools can work with different types of kids, easing them into more productive behaviors.

She has developed a curriculum for  kindergarten and first grade called INSIGHTS into Children’s Temperament, which helps teachers, parents — and kids themselves — understand how children’s personalities affect the way they cope with new or stressful situations.

Though they can’t just wave a  wand and make a shy kid outgoing, teachers and parents can help them gently stretch themselves to get more engaged in the classroom.

McClowry has tested the program in New York City elementary schools serving predominantly low-income children, randomly assigning kids with similar backgrounds to the INSIGHTS program or to a supplementary reading program, which served as a control group.

That kind of experimental design is considered the gold standard because it gives researchers confidence that the effects they are seeing stem from the change (in this case, participation in INSIGHTS) and not some other factor.

McClowry has found evidence that in the classrooms using the INSIGHTS program, teaching improves, as does classroom behavior and student attention.  The students also scored higher on math and reading tests.

In a follow-up study published last month in School Psychology Review, she and her colleagues found that shy kids had lower academic skills than peers who are not shy, which was consistent with prior research. But in the INSIGHT classrooms, shy kids showed more rapid growth in math and critical thinking skills during the transition from kindergarten to first grade than shy kids who were in the supplemental reading group.

The 10-week program introduces four personality types, which are represented by puppet characters: Hilary the Hard Worker (who is industrious, pleasant and persistent on tasks), Fredrico the Friendly (who is social and eager to try), Gregory the Grumpy (who is squirmy and responds to stress strongly and negatively) and Coretta the Cautious (who is shy, withdrawn and anxious).

Participants learn that each personality type has its pros and cons. For example, though Gregory may have an attitude that can make him disruptive in class, his energy could make him a good leader. Though Coretta’s shyness may keep her from engaging in class, she’s also unlikely to take unsafe risks.

Different personalities call for different approaches to discipline.

Some personalities may require a direct approach to get their attention, but the same approach doesn’t work as well with a shy kid.

“All you need to do with a shy child is perhaps says something like ‘that’s just not like you’ in a very quiet tone of voice,” McClowry said. “Doing anything more than that may be overwhelming for the child and may cause the child to be even more reticent.”

Comments | Topics: school discipline, Science of learning, Teacher-student relationships


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