THE BLOG

The Introvert in the Classroom

09/04/2014 11:06 am ET | Updated Nov 04, 2014
JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images

School is designed for the extroverts of the world. OK, maybe that's not entirely fair. Many teachers design their classrooms to meet the needs of different personality types and different learning styles, but if we step back and think about the schedule of the typical school day, it's not designed for the introverted.

For six hours (and sometimes more) each day, kids move from subject to subject, activity to activity, learning and interacting as they go. Once or twice each day they enjoy recess, usually outside, and they always have time for lunch. With their classmates. Often in a very noisy room with terrible lighting.

As Susan Cain explains time and time again, we live in an extroverted world. While extroverted children draw energy from those around them and thrive in these action-packed schedules, the daily school schedule depletes introverted children. They are left feeling over-stimulated, emotionally exhausted and ready to melt down.

That recess period that brings such unbridled joy to an extroverted child can be a complete nightmare for a little introvert. The noise, the lack of structure, the constant moving and the sea of people can send an introverted child into self-preservation mode. And that crowded cafeteria? That's a trigger like no other.

While some will rise to the occasion and try to keep up with the others (because, let's face it, that's the message introverts receive every time they leave the comfort of their homes), others will shut down and internalize their emotions. And some will simply fall apart.

I remember that feeling of panic that emerged within me as a child in school. I didn't want teachers to call on me. I didn't want to deal with the crowded cafeteria. I didn't want to worry about what to play at recess and how I would find my closest friend with so many kids running free in one place. It wasn't social anxiety or "shyness" that caused that feeling deep within my soul, though; it was a need for downtime.

It wasn't until I reached my teen years and figured out what I needed to do to recharge my batteries (like read an entire book in one sitting) that I realized that the perpetual lump in my throat as a child was a function of the anxiety triggered by trying play ball as an introvert in a world designed for extroverts.

As an adult, I know how to thrive in this world. I know when to speed up and when to slow down. I know how to assert my needs and when to walk away. And I don't let the input from others get me down. Not everyone in my life understands me, but that doesn't stop me from being me.

For little ones, it's not so easy. My son started kindergarten last week. While he loves the projects and comes home full of new and interesting information, he is exhausted. His introverted little soul is completely depleted by 12:45 each day, and he is struggling because of it. He doesn't know how to slow down in this new environment. At home, he disappears into a world of puzzles or Legos when he gets overwhelmed. At his preschool, he was known to craft a drum kit out of sand toys and spend time drumming to recharge. In his new school, he doesn't know how to hit the pause. And he's not alone.

You can't seem to escape articles and reports about the importance of slowing down and getting more rest right now. Experts across various fields caution about the dangers of overscheduling for both adults and children. And yet, we send kids off to school each day with the expectation that they will go, go, go for six hours straight. Talk about mixed messages.

It's possible to make small changes within the classroom that will help introverted children thrive. There's a middle ground in there somewhere, we just have to work together to find it.

Create a quiet zone.
Many classrooms have reading nooks and other quiet centers where kids can go to check out and read in a comfortable space. These are great for all kids. While some kids choose to sit in pairs and talk about their books, others have the opportunity to sit alone and reenergize.

But recess is a whole different story. Recess is a time for play and burning off excess energy. While many kids enjoy play structures, games in large groups and just running around, some prefer quiet play. Creating an outdoor quiet zone gives introverted children a place to find other kids interested in quiet play. Legos, sidewalk chalk, Play-Doh or clay and building blocks are great quiet zone activities. Playing cards for games like Go Fish or Crazy Eights are also great for kids who prefer to play in pairs, and puzzles are often a hit among the introverted crowd.

Encourage interests.
A common misconception about introverts is that they are shy. Quiet and shy are two very different things, and introverted children tend to really speak up when they have the opportunity to share their interests.

Ask my son a question about Snow White and you'll probably be met with a blank stare, but ask him a question about sperm whales, Germany, music or race cars and he'll talk your ear off.

It's important for all kids to find their voices in the classroom. Interacting with peers and adults is a life skill, and even the quiet kids can speak up. Putting them on the spot without any warning is likely to trigger feelings of anxiety, but encouraging them to speak to their interests will help them learn to turn up the volume.

Teach all kids to think first.
Introverted children need time to process their thoughts and emotions before they speak. If they aren't the first ones to raise their hands every time a teacher asks a question, it's because they are busy processing their thoughts.

A slight shift in how teachers seek class input can help. When teachers pose a question but give kids a certain amount of time to consider the question before raising their hands to speak, kids learn to think first. This also gives introverted kids a chance to collect their thoughts and join the classroom conversation.

Use the buddy system.
Introverted children can struggle to find a friend. In large classrooms and surrounded by new faces, finding a good match can feel overwhelming. Use the buddy system.

While it's nice to rely on a "we are all friends" mentality during the elementary years, the truth is that introverted children struggle to engage in large groups. Or if they do manage to be heard over the crowd, they need significant downtime to recharge after the fact. Pairing off like-minded kids with similar interests and personalities helps introverted kids find the friendly face. This will also prove helpful during more chaotic periods, such as lunch and recess.

Introverted children have rich internal worlds and enjoy meaningful conversations and close relationships. Isn't time that we shift our thinking and make a few changes so that introverted students can shine just as much as their extroverted counterparts?