Many assume that introverts have less to offer than extroverts. Nothing could be further from the truth. As educators, we need to make sure the natural introverts understand that their contributions are valued in the classroom.
How? By upending a cultural bias that slants heavily in favor of extroverts. We’re hardwired to associate being gregarious and outgoing with success. We’re taught that we need to be seen and heard, to stand out in the crowd. We need to be aggressive and dynamic and never take no for an answer. It’s the squeaky wheel phenomenon on steroids.
This bias has left its stamp everywhere. In her popular TED Talk, introvert champion Susan Cain observes, “Our most important institutions—our schools and our workplaces—are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation.”
But here’s the trouble. One-third to half of your students are likely introverts. It’s also likely that they feel overwhelmed by the commotion in the classroom. They might prefer to pull away from the action altogether. Unfortunately, this preference is often met with concern or judgment.
We often confuse introversion with shyness, but there’s a key distinction: Shy people feel anxious in the company of others. For introverts, it’s a question of stimuli. Too much stimuli from multiple sources and an introvert needs time alone to reenergize.
School can sometimes feel like one giant run-on group activity—not ideal conditions for the introverted child. Cain argues that “the New Groupthink” places many kids at a disadvantage. “The key to maximizing our talents,” she says, “is for us all to put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us.”
Bottom line: We need to rethink how we’re asking kids to learn. Here are some ways to best support introverts in the classroom.
1. Be careful not to typecast.
The language we use when talking about kids matters. When my eldest son first entered grade school, I had a habit of describing him to teachers and coaches as “quiet” or “sensitive” because they were easy descriptors, both to use and to understand. Without intending to, I was, in effect, pigeonholing him into a type, and in doing so, influencing the way others interacted with him.
2. Take time to notice the valuable qualities an introvert brings to your classroom.
My son can be quiet and sensitive, but he is also funny, imaginative, observant, kind, and incredibly tuned in to the needs and feelings of others. This past year, not only did he get a speaking part in his fourth grade play, but he got the part of the weird, funny, alien game-show contestant who keeps blurting out answers in a made-up alien language. To everyone’s surprise, including himself, he got the biggest laughs.
3. Allow for nooks and crannies.
In architecture, the concept of circulation refers to the way spaces influence how people move through them. The way people behave in open plazas differs from how people act in more intimate, closed-in terraces, for example. Same goes for the classroom. A classroom with only large, communal zones will generate lots of large, communal activity. Creating some smaller sequestered nooks encourages a quieter, more low-key atmosphere conducive to reflective thinking and learning.
4. Incorporate quiet time into each day.
At any age, but especially for younger children, build quiet time for reading, drawing, or meditating into each day. If held at the same time every day, introverts and extroverts alike will recognize this time as part of their routine and benefit from the change of pace.
5. Offer multiple learning channels.
One of the great benefits of being a teacher in the 21st century is the sheer variety of ways to engage with students, from class blogs to social media to a piece of paper and a no. 2 pencil. An introvert may not be the first to raise her hand to speak, but she might relish the chance to share her thoughts in writing. Also called “silent dialogue” or “silent conversation,” it allows for some time to gather and articulate thoughts, which can then be incorporated into a group discussion.
6. Make participation about quality, not quantity.
This is where every teacher has the opportunity to drive home the all-important lesson of quality over quantity. I used to tell my high school sophomores and juniors that I wouldn’t call on anyone for at least one full minute, sometimes two, after posing a question. Why? Because I expected them to have put some thought into their answer before sharing it. This worked well for the introverts because they could gather their thoughts free of the immediate pressure to say something. It worked for the extroverts as well because it dissuaded them from blurting out the first thing that popped into their heads.
7. Offer a buffet of learning options.
The key ingredient for effective engagement across learning styles is variety. Change up your teaching strategies over the course of the day. Follow up a group activity with some focused solo work time. Let students think on a problem independently first then pair up with a classmate to dissect it further before sharing their ideas with everyone.
Design a pick-your-own-adventure lesson in which students can choose from a smorgasbord of sharing styles, from staging a debate on the topic to making an instructive collage. This builds creativity into the learning process and allows each student to gravitate to the activity that suits their temperament.
8. Show introverts their strengths.
While being confident, articulate, and argumentative are not qualities to be dismissed or devalued, good listening, persistence, and empathy are just as necessary in this world. Be sure to show your introverted students that their gifts, while perhaps less attention-getting, are no less appreciated or significant. Subtle communication often works well; eye contact or even a little smile will be enough to let them know that you see them and appreciate their contributions.
9. Connect one on one to strategize.
The breakthrough for me as an introverted child came in the form of my second grade teacher, Mrs. Helbick, inviting me into a separate room to talk about how things were going and how she could help them go better. I had been very anxious up to that point, not knowing how to communicate that I couldn’t focus and needed some space from another child in class, a consummate jokester who went to great lengths to get anyone’s attention.
I recall the immense relief I felt after that conversation. But even more lasting was the boost of confidence she gave me by noticing my predicament and respecting my personality by handling it in a way that would not further embarrass or aggravate me.
For other great tools, advice, and resources, check out Cain’s Quiet Revolution.
10. Be careful not to handhold unnecessarily.
Often, we introverts need to push through our fears and experience what it feels like to take the risk, step out on the limb, and hold the spotlight for a moment. Even when we fail, we learn something useful. So don’t overdo it with the special treatment. Every child at some point needs to learn how to articulate their ideas and also recognize the benefit of learning from others’ perspectives. While the exposure to potential criticism or too much attention can be intimidating for introverted kids, they might just realize the experience is not as bad as they expected it to be.
In The Atlantic, Dr. Kendall Hoyt suggests concocting “elaborate social scavenger hunts for children, games that require them to approach strangers, look them in the eye, and ask for whatever the game requires—directions, information, or signatures.” Strategies like this can transform a source of fear into an act of fun and go a long way in breaking down what might have felt like impassible barriers.
At the end of the day, we want our students to be happy the way they are. This starts by letting them simply be who they are by paying attention and harnessing the right suite of tools to access each child’s limitless reservoir of potential.
How do you support introverts in the classroom? We’d love to hear your ideas in our WeAreTeachers Helplinegroup on Facebook.