Hiccups during online learning are undoubtedly expected. Dropped internet, slow apps, and frozen screens are all tech issues that come with this new territory. But tech issues are nothing compared to a kindergartener who refuses to speak on camera. Understanding why your kid is shy in virtual learning can help ease frustrations, experts say.
"'Stage fright' is a common feeling among children when they are expected to give a presentation at school, compete in a sporting event, or perform in a recital. So it's only natural that children may experience similar feelings with cameras on during the virtual school year," Kelly Beck, certified child life specialist (CCLS) with Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, tells Romper.
Picture the first day of virtual school. Your kiddo seems excited, but as soon as the camera flips on and they're in their first Zoom call of the year, they turn away, hide under the table, or cover their face with their hands. Sound familiar? Or, maybe your child is OK with a call, but they scream and cry for an hour when it's time to record themselves for a video assignment. They may be just fine in a classroom, but why does being on a screen spark such different behavior?
"Children and teens may experience anxiety similar to stage fright when they are on camera for virtual learning sessions due to worry about their performance — fear of making a mistake, fear of embarrassing themselves, fear of not meeting expectations of their performance — worry about being the focus of attention, worry about being made fun of, or worry about 'performing' in front of peers," Dr. Laura Gray, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at Children’s National Hospital, tells Romper.
Gray explains that children who may have had a negative experience previously (perhaps in the spring semester when they first went online) could still feel embarrassed or worried about repeating a past mistake on screen. Additionally, kids who generally feel nervous about being the center of attention when doing activities such as reading aloud in class may have similar feelings on camera.
"For any child or teen who experiences an intense surge of anxiety when asked to speak on screen, that anxiety will interfere with their recall of information — mind going blank or stumbling over their response — making it more difficult to respond," Gray says. "This negative experience reinforces their fear of speaking in front of the class on camera and can lead to increased anxiety the next time."
Another part of the stage fright equation could have something to do with your child seeing their own reflection on screen. "When children go to school, besides a mirror in their locker or the restroom, they don’t constantly have to look at themselves, and phones are usually unnecessary or even prohibited in classrooms," neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D. explains. "So already, we see a major difference; children are constantly looking at a little image of themselves in the corner of the screen, making them hyper-aware of their appearance at a chronic level."
One other issue Hafeez says parents can look for as a reason for stage fright is bullying. "That is a different subject, but if a child feels like a classmate is being malicious or if they are experiencing bullying on other platforms, this could be a reason for being shy about being on camera as well," she says.
So, what can you do to help? Talking with their teacher about your child's experience can be helpful. They may have perspective that you as the parent are not aware of. Additionally, if your child lacks confidence, make sure they have a comfortable work area and are dressed for success. Talking to your child and helping them work through the emotions surrounding being being on screen, as well as relating to their experiences if you are also someone who has to do work on a screen can also help.
"Few things calm children down more than knowing their parents understand how they’re feeling," Dr. Hafeez says. "Have a dialogue with your child where there is open communication about how they feel about going to class and being seen on camera, be willing to share how it can be difficult for you sometimes, and how important it is for you to power through that feeling. This will give the child a sense of camaraderie and a feeling of being encouraged but understood."
Depending on what the reason is for your child experiencing stage fright during virtual learning, the solution to this issue may look different for each family. Above all though, supporting your child through this moment is key. "Most importantly, parents need to validate their children’s feelings and concerns," Beck tells Romper. "Rather than discrediting their anxieties and telling them this stage fright will pass, it is important to show empathy and listen to them."
Kelly Beck, CCLS, Sinai Hospital of Baltimore
Dr. Laura Gray, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at Children’s National Hospital
Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., a neuropsychologist in New York City, faculty member at Columbia University