When Quiet Students Struggle

Perla was a quiet twelve-year old student who never caused problems. She seemed to slip into invisibility when no one was looking—and given how often no one was looking, she remained invisible for a good part of the first quarter. As a brand new middle school social studies teacher, I barely noticed her.

Over time, however, I got to know Perla. Since social studies was her favorite subject, she would often hang around my classroom minutes before the start of school. She would sit by my classroom door with her head down, diligently drawing fantastical creatures. Slowly, she opened up about her artwork. Our initial exchanges led to longer conversations about political theory and about the larger concepts behind historical events. It was never small talk. She had no patience for the typical “how’s it going?” questions a teacher might ask.

Based upon her depth of thought and her intense focus in class, I assumed Perla was excelling at school. However, one afternoon, as my students were analyzing historical information in preparation for a debate, I noticed that the notes she had been taking on the margins were actually doodles. The twirling script wasn’t handwriting at all, but a vine with tiny rosebuds.

I asked her a few questions about the text, and she shut down.

“You’re not in trouble. I promise,” I told her. “Please, tell me what’s going on.”

“I can’t read it,” she said, turning red in the face.

“Was this text just too hard?”

“All of it is hard,” she said. “I can’t read any of it.”

Although she had been thriving in a project-based, creative-driven social studies class, Perla had been faking it through every reading we had ever done. She appeared to be reading, but in reality she struggled with basic blending and phonics.

I was shocked that I had missed such a glaring gap in her academic development. As an introvert and a teacher, I had promised myself that I would reach out to the quiet students. I would carve out spaces of solitude away from the chaos of a hands-on, collaborative classroom.

Despite my understanding of introversion, I had failed to see Perla struggling at reading because she had been struggling in such a quiet way. She hadn’t asked for help. She hadn’t acted out and caused disruptions. The classroom always had louder students demanding my attention.

It was more than that, though. I had assumed that her deep, introspective way of approaching history also meant she had mastered reading. I couldn’t see how a deep thinker could be a poor reader. Besides, reading had always been such a refuge for me as an introvert. I couldn’t fathom a quiet child who didn’t want to read, much less one who had never mastered the skill at all.

When I approached Perla’s reading teacher, she responded with, “I think you’re mistaken. Perla has an A in my class. She’s turned in every assignment. She’s a model student.” However, after administering a series of diagnostic tests, she too understood how much reading intervention Perla needed.

The truth is that she had slipped through the cracks for eight and a half years of schooling because her struggle was so quiet. She went inward when she was distracted. It was far too easy for teachers to view her intense focus as a sign she was fully engaged with the text.

While I would love to see Perla as an exception, I think her situation is far more common than people realize. Too often, quiet students struggle academically because they seem to be an anomaly in a system that equates silence with good behavior and good behavior with academic achievement. They never cause problems. They are often too shy to ask for help. They struggle in silence, waiting for a teacher to notice.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Teachers can identify students like Perla and help guarantee that they don’t spend years struggling in silence. Parents can partner with schools to advocate for students who are quietly struggling. It begins with awareness and a recognition that quiet students struggle just as often as loud students.

What Parents Can Do

  • Ask teachers about specific academic standards. Often, a teacher will base a grade on whether or not a student has completed the work. When teachers focus on work completion, they fail to assess student mastery of specific concepts and skills. A quiet, hardworking student can easily slip through the cracks.
  • Remind teachers that “quiet” doesn’t necessary mean more engaged, better behaved, or more skilled. It can be helpful to bring this up before the start of a school year and during follow-up conversations.
  • Ask reflective questions that allow your child to admit to weaknesses. Too often, quiet students get labeled as “good kids,” which leads them to feel they have to fake it when they struggle. A question like, “What is the hardest subject for you right now?” can be a disarming way to explore a potential problem area.
  • Advocate for your quiet child. Ask for additional one-on-one tutoring. Find out if there are individualized, asynchronous ways that your child can contact the teacher, e.g., an online form, a message, or an email.
  • Empower your child to be his or her own educational advocate. Talk through the fear of speaking up, and allow your child to rehearse the possible conversation with the teacher in the safety of your home. As a student, I used to write out a script of what I would say; that script would give me the confidence I needed to approach my teacher.

What Teachers and Schools Can Do

  • Don’t wait for students to raise hands or ask for help in front of the entire class. Engage with them on-one-one.
  • Make sure to check in with quiet students who look like they’re zoning out. Help these students as often as you help the students who are off-task in louder ways.
  • Create methods for one-on-one communication between teachers and students. This might be an e-mail message or an online form that students fill out.
  • Provide students with self-assessments that will allow them to identify key areas where they need extra support.
  • Pay attention to student learning rather than observable behaviors to identify whether or not a student is on-task and engaged.
  • Provide one-on-one tutoring rather than small group intervention when introverted students are struggling. Even in a small group, they can get lost.
  • If possible, reduce the class sizes so that quiet students are not lost in the noise and chaos of a larger classroom.
  • Schools should provide professional development on how to differentiate instruction for students who are quiet and/or introverted. Raising awareness about introverted students and their way of learning can provide paradigm shifts that certain teachers still need to make.

Ultimately, it comes down to awareness. By building a relationship of trust and allowing quiet students to have the permission to make mistakes, we can begin to identify areas where they might be struggling and provide them the support that all students deserve.

Perla almost slipped through the cracks because of a quiet struggle. But with the right intervention and one-on-one tutoring, she grew stronger as a reader. Over the years, I kept in touch with a teacher in her high school who mentored Perla through some tumultuous times. Eventually, she landed a scholarship and thrived at a small university, where she earned a degree in engineering. She’s still quiet, but she’s not quietly struggling.