Facilitating Student Learning by Helping them Overcome Embarrassment

In my decade-long work in reaching and teaching struggling students, irrespective of the nature of their struggle, I have found one common thread: embarrassment. Most struggling students have found themselves failing, and many of these experiences of failure become foundations to future embarrassment. This, then, becomes a huge deterrent to learning when the student begins to default to maladaptive coping mechanisms that serve them at the moment but are detrimental in the long term. 

Refusing to attend class, distracting the teacher or peers, refusing to do the task, hoodwinking the teacher/parent to escape from the task, feigning physical illness to miss class, not trying, defining themselves as “a student who doesn’t like to write,” or “not the studying type,” plagiarism, submitting blank answer sheets, immersing themselves in mind-numbing activities like video games, Instagram scrolling or watching TV are all examples of such maladaptive coping mechanisms.

TIP: Look out for behaviours and actions you can’t explain, especially when they seem unreasonable, or when they make you conclude that “the student doesn’t want to do x.” Embarrassment may be a potential reason.

The four understandings I list below have been instrumental in my journey of helping students learn by overcoming embarrassment. Please note that they are in no particular order, and that teacher & student readiness and a trusting relationship between them is a pre-requisite for any of them to help. 

1. Knowing the Words Matter

On the same day last week, I witnessed conflict in two of my students’ homes, thanks to Zoom. One (6yo) walked away when his father insisted that he play the piano for the visiting grandfather. Another (7yo) refused to join her school online classes with no explanation. Both actions were driven by embarrassment. The first child later told the mother that he was embarrassed to play in front of the grandfather, while I surmised that the second child was embarrassed because she has a history of refusing classes owing to her struggle in reading. She has told her mother multiple times that she feels ‘shame’ when others can read what she can’t. No prizes for guessing which conflict was resolved and which escalated and lasted for days. Even though the father of the first child still doesn’t see his son’s actions as justified, the child’s clear communication opened a window into his mind and made space for empathy. Repeated refusals from the second child, however, led the grandparent to say, “उसको करना नहीं हैं|” [She doesn’t want to learn.] I leave it to the reader’s imagination to guess how this may have progressed. 

This article from The Center on Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning succinctly explains why and how young children can be taught to identify and express emotions. Older students and English Language Learners who don’t yet have this vocabulary may need similar lessons that are tailored to their age and developmental readiness.

TIP: Check to see if your students are aware of the word ‘embarrassment.’ Teach and explore the word and related feelings. Share examples from books or your own life. Ensure that they understand that embarrassment is ubiquitous and that they are not alone.

2. Insight Is Important

A crucial prerequisite to overcoming embarrassment is knowing that you are embarrassed. Young children are sometimes so overwhelmed with the feeling that they are unable to recognize, much less process that they are embarrassed. As the child gets older, the coping mechanisms turn into habits, kicking in so instantly that the ‘pause’ required for recognition is unavailable. 

In teens and older people, what may have started as embarrassment sometimes morphs into fixed beliefs and statements about oneself in such a way that the original feeling is no longer recognizable. I have always said that I hate dancing. If I allow myself to dig deep, I may have to come face to face with the fact that I don’t dance well, that I am deeply embarrassed about how my body moves. I have heard many adults camouflage embarrassment regarding their math abilities with statements such as “I am not a math person.” 

Insight, the recognition of one’s own condition, is imperative despite the many impediments in its way. Unless one is consciously aware of one’s own feelings and emotions, where they probably came from, and how they are leading to maladaptive coping mechanisms, it is hard to effect change without ascribing blame to self. Overcoming embarrassment requires at least a basic understanding of how the embarrassment was shaped, which almost always has the input of someone outside of us. Once the truth behind why a teenager still struggles with basic spelling is uncovered (learning disability, poor teaching & learning environment, etc.), ‘bad spelling’ loses its power to hold her hostage and cause endless embarrassment. The insight can then make way for change in maladaptive attitudes and behaviours. 

TIP: Facilitate insight in the learner because otherwise, the learner may just be coping forever without intervention. Clarify that there is nothing wrong with them, help remove shame and self-blame, and help them move forward. 

3. Unconditional Acceptance in the Teaching-Learning Environment

The very basis of embarrassment is a sense of “unbelonging”, the sinking feeling that singles us out and makes us appear different and lesser than those around us. The antidote to embarrassment, hence, is radical acceptance and inclusion. The classroom and the teacher must not shame but must accept the student, their flaws in the task at hand, and their flawed coping mechanisms. 

This is not possible if the teachers are themselves embarrassed that their student doesn’t know/can’t do something. Neither is it possible if we value/accept only certain parts of the student and reject or look down upon the parts that are yet incompetent.

TIP: Steer clear of what Newkirk calls “assumptive teaching” in his Embarrassment: The Emotional Underlife of Learning. When a teacher assumes the student knows something, the student assumes that they were “supposed” to know it without knowing that there are good reasons for their not knowing, or that sometimes teacher assumptions stem from incompetence. Scaffold as appropriate. When the teacher expects students to go from step 1 to step 10 without scaffolding, many students assume that they are unable to do it because they are inadequate.

4. Evidences Speak Louder Than Words

Most children are reasonably resilient to falling and failing at a young age. They don’t expect to learn to read or write or cycle the very first time they try it. Therefore, when a student is acutely embarrassed about, say, writing, we can safely assume that they have tried to succeed at it numerous times before they had to resort to, say, avoiding it. Many parents and teachers tire themselves out by providing pep talks and empty affirmations about the student’s abilities. Unfortunately, they don’t work because a student who is coping is already self-aware enough to know how much they know and can do. The only way to get the student to believe that they can is to equip them to be able to. Verbal reassurances, pep talks, inspirational quotes, and messages have their place, and I use them abundantly. The issue arises when they are not used with actual skill/knowledge building. 

TIP: Learn to accurately assess the student’s skills and knowledge and teach well-scaffolded lessons with enough opportunities for practice. When the student ‘gets it,’ ensure that you bring to their conscious awareness that they ‘got’ what was once difficult; that they are capable and smart. 

In conclusion, I quote Swami Vivekananda:

“The only true teacher is he who can immediately come down to the level of the student, and transfer his soul to the student’s soul and see through the student’s eyes and hear through his ears and understand through his mind. Such a teacher can really teach and none else.” 

Swami Vivekananda

You can connect with me on Twitter @teachingtenets or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.

– Aishwarya


  1. Embarrassment, The Emotional Underlife of Learning by Thomas Newkirk
  2. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda

Featured art by https://www.khidkiyaa.com/

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