How Teachers Can Help ‘Quiet Kids’ Tap Their Superpowers (response)

IMG_0004I don’t know about you, but I was the “quiet” kid all through school.  Though I rarely sp0ke up (even though I usually knew the answer) I was present, alert, and more engaged than most of the other students.  That is if I were interested in the class.  If I wasn’t into the material I busied myself with drawing doodles in the margins or staring out the window (if there was one).  When I was in high school I began to care less about showing up on time or doing the work they wanted me to do.  I simply wasn’t interested, was very bored, and considered it busywork to simply occupy my time and not challenge my intellectual or creative capacities.  I always felt out of place in school, though I have always loved learning and exploring new topics.
The office staff and vice principal came to know me on a first name basis as I sauntered in with an armload of library books (from the local library ) and picked up my detention slip.  After school I served these detentions (usually an hour of complete quiet time designed as punishment) and spent a wonderful block of time just reading and enjoying the fact that the others around me weren’t allowed to exhibit the types of behaviors that had landed them in detention in the first place.
After awhile the vice principal tired of seeing me so often and thought I should be put in a place called “educational adjustment,” which consisted of a small rented trailer building behind the school gym.  The “bad” kids were sent there to be dutifully overseen by the coach, who busied himself with ordering donuts for himself, talking on the phone, and floating in and out.  Our work was sent over from our regular classes.
I had an art teacher who I have always postulated took pity on me and sent over some interesting things for me to draw.  One was a lighthouse scene with extensive variety in the types of drawing marks one had to practice to build the drawing.  I focused on this for wonderful hours and the other work as well.  Free from distractions and owing to the fact that there were just 3-4 students at a time in educational adjustment (EA), I flourished in the quiet, uninterrupted (except for lunch, gym class, and end of the school day) time to think and work.
Eventually school administration decided it was time for me to go back to regular classes and informed me so.  I didn’t feel like I had been adjusted educationally (whatever that means), but I did feel like quiet time was over and it was back to the circus.  I even had my mother call the vice principal and ask (on my behalf as they don’t seem to consider the requests of kids to be valid, well thought out, or worthy of consideration) if I could just remain in “EA” the remainder of the school year.  The reply was an emphatic “no!” as you might suspect, and I soon found myself back in the regular classrooms doodling and staring out the windows.
I left high school at the age of 17 (mostly out of sheer boredom, but also to escape the small town fishbowl I had grown up in) and joined the US Army.  During basic training I tested for and received my general education diploma.  Later, I attended a local community college as I tried to find my way in life and studied (for varying periods) business management, computer programming, and later, fine art.  The art stuck with me, but it wouldn’t be until my 30s that I seriously worked on developing my skills as a painter and potter.  I later returned to school at the age of 43 to complete a bachelors degree (ostensibly), but found that I had lit the fires of curiosity (though they had always been quite active) and I was quite good at school.  I completed the bachelors and entered a masters program directly thereafter followed by my entry into a Ph.D. program.  At the age of 47 I graduated with my Ph.D. and thought back to those days spent in that little trailer in EA (and in detention) and reflected on the fact that I’m not really so different even today from the dorky guy who read a lot, was a really good artist, and for whom the margins of society seem to be a better fit than the vast middle.
Now as I research the lives of highly sensitive people (myself included) I intuitively know that our education system falls flat when it comes to “quiet” kids.  It simply does not have a place for them, nor does it understand or appreciate that people are not all alike, nor it is desirable for us to be so.  Highly sensitive people think and feel more deeply than those without the trait.  HSPs (as we generally like to shorten it down to) are simply out of place in an education system set up for the dominant cultural group: extraverts.
In this brief article I present a piece that caught my eye from NPR.  Elissa Nadworny presents new information about a rethinking of “quiet” students and how we can come to reform our schools to be more inclusive of those who are shy, highly sensitive people, or introverted (all are different though there can be overlap).  I especially like that they are beginning to ask the question “why is this student quiet?”  In my case it was because I would do anything to not attract attention to myself (shyness), but also because being stuck in a group of 25 other students made me feel very pent up and too close for comfort.  Occasionally I would speak up and astonish everyone with the right answer!  Being a high sensation seeking highly sensitive person I enjoyed the shock value of a moment of disinhibition and planting the seeds of mystery in the minds of those around me (devious master that I was).
Now, as a teacher myself, I know the experience of being in a classroom we may not wish to be in and seek very actively to change perceptions around what true education is (namely more toward student led).  I call upon the quiet ones often and solicit their opinions and views knowing that they not only have a viewpoint, but that I may have just made their day by valuing them enough to call on them.  There’s an old saying that “you have to watch out for the quiet ones!”  I think that’s true and it’s true because we’re the ones who are actively thinking beyond a superficial level and may have deep insights.
As one of the quiet ones myself I think it is encouraging that awareness of sensitivity is increasing.  Hopefully, that awareness will lead educators to begin thinking of better ways to engage students in the course material and craft a new paradigm where the quiet students are respected for their depth and included in ways that begin to address the disparity in overemphasizing gregarious, extreme extraverted behavior at the expense of critical thinking, reflection, and creativity.
If I had any advice to provide about how education should happen for highly sensitive children in a public school setting I would be hard pressed to offer ideas that would not require quite a shift in the current paradigm, which seems to be obsessed with near constant evaluation and assessment.  It’s almost as if we have such a fear that our kids aren’t somehow learning “enough” that we feel a need to allow constant evaluations to take precedence over the learning that should be taking place.
In that sense less regimentation, more time in the out of doors exploring and learning about nature, and less time spent indoors in buildings that often resemble factories (or prisons) learning how to stand in line, waiting for the teacher to deal with the disruptive kids, and otherwise being molded and shaped into compliant, non-thinking (or only thinking in “approved ways”), non-creative, easily controlled pawns for society to categorize, stigmatize, and separate based on socioeconomic status.
What’s an appropriate school experience for a highly sensitive child?  How should we support and encourage natural tendencies toward deep thinking, reflection, and creativity?  Do we even truly value those qualities in individuals anymore?
Sometimes I am quite torn between thinking that we HSPs have to live within the society thus we should learn to assimilate as best as possible versus reforming a system that’s completely at odds with valuing most of the qualities we embody.  Many HSPs are involved in the education field, including a good number of teachers.  HSPs may make excellent teachers (I know, I am one) and within that role it may be possible for teachers to implement some of the strategies outlined below that may change individual classrooms one at a time.
For parents lucky enough to be able to afford private school I would highly recommend that option.  Of course, do your research and carefully investigate the school’s approach and stance on education.  The best education for a highly sensitive child would be one where a good deal of autonomy is provided as well as access to a wealth of reading materials and options complemented by exceptional teachers who can support and encourage your child’s development at a natural pace.  There are some public schools where your child will still do well.  Make no mistake: there are lots of great public school teachers working very hard to do the best they can with what they have.  Other schools though do less well and are not good places for highly sensitive children to develop in.
The other option is, of course, homeschooling, which can take the form of a structured or non-structured approach.  With a structured approach you would utilize a curriculum supplied by your choice of providers (based on your philosophy of education).  There are even online schools available now.  With an unstructured approach (sometimes called unschooling) the child explores on his own and is facilitated in those explorations and fascinations trusting that much is simply absorbed through osmosis and individual pursuits of passion.
With either approach much will depend on the motivation of the child.  Sometimes parents are more committed to homeschooling (or unschooling) than the children and may face an uncomfortable battle if the child is not well suited to learning in a home environment.  Certainly there are community schools where one can seek more social support (homeschool support groups and shared arrangements) and all children are different (even within families).  My advice would be to tailor your educational strategy to your child’s unique needs.  One child may do exceptionally well at homeschooling or unschooling, while another may need more structure and excel in a school setting.  What is obvious to me (and that always impresses me) is the youthful energy and optimism that young people embody.  How we choose to be good stewards of that potential will have much to do with our children’s ultimate success as lifelong learners.  Let’s take that responsibility seriously.


Dave Van Patten for NPR

When Lily Shum was little, she dreaded speaking up in class. It wasn’t because she didn’t have anything interesting to say, or because she wasn’t paying attention or didn’t know the answer. She was just quiet.

“Every single report card that I ever had says, ‘Lily needs to talk more. She is too quiet,’ ” recalls Shum, now an assistant director at Trevor Day School in Manhattan.

She doesn’t want her students to feel the pressure to speak up that she felt.

That’s why she joined more than 60 educators in New York City recently at the Quiet Summer Institute. The professional development workshop was based on Susan Cain’s best-seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

The book has been a national phenomenon, and it’s the inspiration behind a curriculum developed by Heidi Kasevich for teachers.

“It was a lens through which I could view my entire life, and really feel the license to be myself,” says Kasevich, a teacher for more than 20 years who now works for the company Cain co-founded to promote the book’s message about introverts.

This training workshop uses this book — and Cain’s latest book written for middle-schoolers — to help teachers notice, and serve, those quiet kids.

“There are expectations on our kids to … be a charismatic extrovert,” says Kasevich. Even if it’s unconsciously, she says, teachers tend to give more attention to the louder students.

Kasevich admits she did it too: calling on the kids who raised their hands first.

The two-day course started with reimagining class participation, which in some schools can count for a big portion of students’ grades. Kasevich would prefer it be called classroom engagement.

“Being present and connecting doesn’t have to take place through lots of speech,” she says. Why not try drawing, writing or working in pairs?

Or, Kasevich suggests, have students walk around the room, writing ideas on tacked-up pieces of paper. They can respond to each other’s ideas — like a sort of silent dialogue.

Educators at the summit heard from Cain herself and also Amy Cuddy and Priscilla Gilman — writers who’ve touched on the subject of introverts.

Principals and administrators mixed with school psychologists, guidance counselors and teachers. They met in small groups to discuss ideas and tips.

At one session, Erica Corbin, the director of community life and diversity at a private girls’ school in Manhattan, told her team that focusing on introverts also means reining in the extroverts.

She offered up this tip for handling students who dominate the discussion: W-A-I-T. Sure, it means wait. But, Corbin explains, it also stands for: “Why Am I Talking?”

Below The Surface

With shy kids, says Corbin, it’s not just about paying attention to them. Teachers need to think about why they’re quiet.

“Personality might be some of it,” she explains, “and we also might have kids who are quiet because they have been shut down. We might have kids that are quiet because they anticipate being shut down whether they have been or not.”

Shutting down for all kinds of reasons, she adds. Stereotypes. Biases. Trouble at home: “When we’re thinking about students who are quiet, how does that also connect with their race … their gender … their sexuality?”

By understanding how to reach introverts, she said, teachers can get at those other issues. Because if they don’t start to look past the students with their hands up, “we’re all gonna miss out on a lot of brilliant ideas.”


Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career.  His web site may be found at where he offers one on one career consulting

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