More than likely you’ve had an introvert in your classroom. You may have thought the student was just shy or even anti-social. Many of us associate being gregarious and outgoing with being more engaged. But, that may be an unconscious bias against those who are more reserved or don’t stand out in a crowd. One-third to half of your students are likely introverts. And as educators, we need to begin to support introverts in the classroom and rethink how we’re asking them to learn.
It’s just a matter of making a few adjustments for a world that caters to extroverts. Remember: Some of the greatest contributions to society were made by introverts — Rosa Parks, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and Dr. Seuss, to name a few.
1. Be careful not to typecast.
First off, don’t confuse being shy with being introverted. Introverts might prefer to pull away from the action and that can be misread as shyness. But, shy people feel anxious in the company of others. While, for introverts, it’s a question of too much stimuli from multiple sources and they need time alone to reenergize.
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. Think about creating a “calm-down corner” in your classroom. To give some kids a little space from one another.
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.
We know there’s an ongoing conversation in schools about grading participation — with teachers falling on both sides of the argument. We reached out to our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE Facebook group to see what they had to say about this heated debate.
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 Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” and “Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts. Wife. Mother. Chocolate eater.”
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 Helpline group on Facebook.