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The question

The teacher at my son's school tells me that he's really nervous to participate in classroom discussions, and won't answer questions when called on. And he has started having panic attacks about it at home. My son is normally a social kid. What can I do to help him get over his fear?

The answer

Your son's not alone. A recently released Toronto District School Board census of nearly all its Grades 7 to 12 students found that less than half of high-school students felt comfortable sharing their opinions in class, and a only half of them were willing to participate in classroom discussions.

The key to easing your son's anxiety, I believe, is to avoid labelling him or jumping to conclusions. You also don't need to immediately pull him out of that particular classroom. Start by asking questions of your child and his teacher: Was there a particular incident in the classroom that may have caused this nervousness? Did it involve some of his classmates? If there are anxiety attacks, it would be worth bringing in the school's guidance counsellor.

Michelle Munroe, central coordinator of parent and community engagement at the TDSB and a mother of two girls, said parents can model behaviour in public spaces – and then heap praise on their children for not shying away from the conversation. "If you're in a grocery store, it could be a matter of engaging your child in an open conversation around strangers ," Munroe said. "It helps build self-confidence, and he knows that there isn't a space he has to hesitate to speak in, because he's capable and competent."

Of course, not all children need to participate to learn – some do it by listening. Vancouver parenting speaker and author Kathy Lynn suggests having your shy or nervous student partner with a friend, and have the friend share their ideas in the classroom. If the teacher wants to know what your son has learned, perhaps he can write it out rather than say it out loud, Lynn said.

"My point is that some people love to participate and learn best that way, some learn by reading, some by listening. Let's value all kinds of learning styles and recognize these kids for who they are," Lynn said. "The reality is, if the pressure is removed and the kids with the problems are respected and allowed to participate at their own level, which might be totally silently, they may relax and be more likely to be able to join in sooner than expected."

The Guidance Counsellor is a column that answers reader questions on navigating the education system. Send your questions to