Walk through any school and you will almost always be greeted by some kind of activity—children heading off to or returning from a class, transitioning to recess, tracking down misplaced articles of clothing, working on classroom assignments or group projects. Is it any surprise, given how many young bodies can inhabit a school, that the environment can sometimes resemble one of those mechanized Transformers changing into robot form—millions of moving parts and hard to take in?
What is it like for reserved children to share a space like this each day? What is it like to be continually asked to contribute to classroom discussions and assert ideas with passion and confidence? What is it like moving from space to space, activity to activity, with little chance for a break or quiet moment? What is the extroverted school world like for an introverted child?
Who Are Introverts?
The term introvert, like many of the terms used to describe aspects of someone’s personality, can be a bit loaded. As Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, notes, the label ‘introvert’ tends to be viewed as a “…second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.” It goes against what seem to be the personality goalposts of our culture—being outgoing, comfortable in the spotlight, extroverted.
Cain speaks to a more thoughtful definition of introvert as a collection of behaviors that more accurately reflect preferences and needs:
- Introverts feel ‘just right’ with less stimulation.
- They work more slowly and deliberately.
- They like to focus on one task at a time.
- They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family.
- They listen more than talk.
- They think before they speak and can feel as if they express themselves better in writing.
- They tend to dislike conflict.
- They enjoy deep discussions.
She is also careful to separate introverts from the idea that they are shy: “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating.”
Creating Safe Spaces at School
Schools can be quite lively places—ones in which both extroverted and introverted children can succeed. Introverted children seem to do best when provided choices that allow them to manage the level of stimulation. Having the power to regulate and adjust throughout the day creates a safe space where they can be more available for the learning instead of having to conform even as their energy wanes. Below are some ways teachers and parents can help ensure that introverted children thrive in school.
Teachers can weave opportunities for choice and self-regulation into classroom routines, educational opportunities, social interactions, and even the environment.
- One well-known routine that works for introverts is Think-Pair-Share. In this activity, the teacher asks the students a question, gives them time to think about the answer, then has them pair up with another student to talk, and finally asks the pair to share their thoughts. This activity gives introverted children, who tend to think more carefully and deeply (rather than just go with a gut feeling), the time to process. It also allows them the chance to articulate their thoughts out loud with a partner before they have to do it in front of the whole class.
- Even the act of pausing the let children think before answering supports the quiet learner. Knowing that you will have the time to think and be called on not just because your hand went up first reduces the anxiety of answering in group situations. It also communicates to introverts and extroverts alike that careful thinking is valued and that the classroom is driven by reflection and not competition.
- “Chalk Talks” are another great way to take the pressure off. In a Chalk Talk, children are writing responses and reflections to a query or quandary on large sheets of chart paper instead of engaging in the usual large group conversation. Students get time to reflect before they are asked to respond. As they share their thoughts in writing, a conversation and exchange of ideas develops as children consider what others have contributed.
- Setting up a “Gallery Walk” is an alternative method of presenting a task or project to a group. Instead of standing up and describing what has been done to a room full of children, projects are displayed and browsed, much like in an art gallery. Students use post-it notes to make comments and ask questions. This removes the stress of sharing in front of a whole group, provides feedback, and preserves space for reflection.
- The classroom environment plays a big part in the level of stimulation introverts face. The bright lights, high traffic, close quarters, and constant din can be a significant factor in an introvert’s day. Teachers can use alternative lighting (lamps and/or natural light) and find times to turn down fluorescent lighting. Teachers can think about seating arrangements and avoid positioning a quiet child in the “high-interaction” areas where groups tend to move, transition, or collect. Also, providing chances for children to work in small, cozy spaces (nooks, soft furniture, etc.) on the periphery of the classroom will help to mitigate the level of sensory input for quieter students.
It is okay to stretch introverts to address large groups and work in noisier settings sometimes. The world is not a static place, and they will need to be prepared to engage in the collaborative, group-think spaces that they will find themselves in.
Reflecting on the experiences you share with your child can provide important insight both in developing a productive collaboration between you and the school, as well as advocating for your quieter child. You have seen how they respond in a variety of settings—family outings, birthday parties, rainy days trapped in the house. How does your child respond to enthusiastic siblings, large groups of people, and sudden transitions?
- When seeing your child’s classroom space for the first time, take the time to note how the room is arranged. Does it seem to be geared for large group interactions with tables/desks arranged toward a central focus point or smaller collaborative satellite groups? Does the space seem to be broken into zones where different things can be happening concurrently? Are there areas that act as nooks or retreats from the main areas of the room? Are there breakout spaces for individuals? Where can you see your quiet child in this space?
- The layout of the classroom gives you a first impression of what the culture of expectations are for learning and interaction in that class. Do keep in mind that classroom layouts can (and usually do) evolve throughout the year. Teachers often need students to “live” in the space and give time for the true needs of the group to emerge to really make good use of the room. Give it some time. See how things evolve in the initial weeks of school and ask some questions during your first parent-teacher conference.
- Once children and families have settled into the year, the first parent-teacher conferences are a great opportunity to collaborate with teachers and advocate for a quiet child. When you step into this first formal conversation with a teacher, take some time to characterize your quiet child and ask questions about how they are engaging in the space and with the group. Consider questions like:
- Do they seem to prefer large group discussions or small/partnered interactions?
- Can you tell us about how they transition between activities?
- What is their approach to the work they do?
- Can you tell us about how they seem to take in new information and share their knowledge of subjects?
- In social interactions, do they seem to focus on groups or individuals?
- Where would you say they spend most of their time in the room and what would they do, if given the opportunity?
These kinds of questions can open up a discussion about how engaged your quiet child is and offers the opportunity to develop some strategies to support who they are. And, as your children get older and begin to take a more active role in defining what they need, ask them to reflect on these questions and provide their own answers as part of the conversation.
- Try to avoid questions that imply or reflect problems, such as:
- Do they have friends?
- Are they raising their hands and participating in class?
- Are they getting all their work done on time?
While we want our children to have friends and participate in the learning, these questions tend to focus more on the ideal of the extrovert. If you have a quiet child, these kinds of questions can create more worry and not help to establish a collaborative dialogue between school and home.
More to Introverts
There is, of course, more to experiencing the world as an introvert than the few words above. Studies are showing that upwards of half the world’s population exhibits introverted characteristics and that quiet people learn how to thrive in cultures that celebrate extroverts. Knowing who your children are and helping them to ask for what they need will support their self-esteem and confidence, even when faced with situations that are challenging to the quiet among us.
- Take the opportunity to read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. While it mostly reflects on the experiences of adults, she has a lot to say about the domains our children inhabit. She has also written a complementary edition geared for middle school age children entitled Quiet Power: The Secret Strength of Introverts. Cain’s website shares more of her thoughts and provides even more resources for parents, teachers, and children.
- Engaging the Quiet Kids (NAIS, 2015)
- How Parents and Teachers Can Nurture The Quiet Power of Introverts (NPR, 2016)
- How Teachers Can Help Quiet Kids Tap Into Their Superpowers (NPR, 2016)
- How to Teach a Young Introvert (ideas.ted.com, 2014)
- Quiet: Susan Cain on Approaching Introverted Students (Edutopia, 2016)