In any classroom today about 10 students likely are introverts, and while the trait has gotten a lot more attention lately, experts say educators often aren’t doing enough to help those students succeed and some policies are making school unnecessarily challenging for them.
Marsha Pinto, a 21-year-old advocate for introverts, says she was quiet as a middle school student, sat in the back of the classroom and liked to read rather than socialize, though she worked hard.
“But I had one teacher in sixth grade who insisted I speak up loudly and threatened me with lower grades if I didn’t participate,” she says. “When I was bullied by some other girls, she even claimed that it was my fault for being so quiet.”
Pinto’s story could be repeated by others, though often the problems introverts face are more subtle―when educators reward extroverts for being outspoken leaders, promote social interaction, and make groupwork the norm even though some students thrive when they are working alone. “Middle school was very hard for me,” says Pinto. “For a lot of reasons it is difficult for quiet students, and the classroom structure itself is sometimes one of them.”
About the Quiet Kids
About a third of us are introverts, more than half because of genetics, sometimes from upbringing, and sometimes from “random events that are hard to quantify,” according to John Zewlenski, a psychology professor at Carleton College who has studied introversion. Traumatic events could cause it, or being thrust into a restrained role with family or friends.
Psychologist Carl Jung coined the term in 1920, but experts since have more clearly defined it. They’ve seen its unique brain patterns and, to the relief of introverts, have distinguished it from shyness, a crippling anxiety over social interaction. Linda Silverman, director of the Gifted Development Center in Denver and author of Upside-Down Brilliance, says extroverts get energy primarily from others while introverts can become overloaded or drained by the outside world, and sometimes just don’t need or care about it.
“Parents and teachers aren’t working overtime turning extroverts into introverts,” Silverman says, “but they do try to remake introverts into extroverts. And they don’t need to.”
And we shouldn’t assume they will always struggle, experts say. Research shows introverts more readily regulate impulsive responses and avoid risks, may be able to think more quickly, concretely and creatively and get better grades (more Merit Scholars are introverted). Some research shows they are more attractive to others and have better relationships. They may even live longer.
“Introverts think before they act, digest information thoroughly, stay on task longer, give up less easily, and work more accurately,” says Susan Cain one of the leading introvert experts and advocates. Teachers should know (and can remind their quiet students) that the successful ranks of introverts include Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and several tech company giants such as Bill Gates and Mark Zukerberg, along with celebrities like Michael Jordan, Christina Aguilera, and even Merryl Streep.
Zelenski’s research shows, however, that while introverts aren’t sad, with more engagement they could refine social skills (they often absorb themselves by observation and reflection) and gather more confidence and happiness, which he’s convinced they experience less than extroverts. Children also change, and over time introverts may become more interested in socializing or even leadership roles and regret not having developed those skills.
“They’ll feel great when they join in, and they’ll only do it out in the world,” says Cain. “But they need to engage on their own terms. So while they shouldn’t be sheltered them from difficult social situations, they should know that we understand and sympathize and want to help.” She and other experts say that introverts may need to be “nudged” by educators, and encouraged to participate and not fear making mistakes.
In the School
Change is often difficult for them, and preparation is key. It might be helpful if introverted students come in before the opening day, and are clear about plans for changes in the schedule or events like a field trips. Classes where rules are enforced about “no putdowns” will be easier for them.
Teachers should understand that introverts are not disinterested, says Silverman, although they have to learn how to advocate for themselves. Ask them if they want strategies for speaking up during class or seeking help later.
“Extroverts think out loud, while introverts mentally rehearse everything before they say it―and wish everyone else would,” says Silverman. “Classrooms don’t operate that way.”
Collaboration is a good skill to learn and will be required later in school and work, says child development expert Jennifer Miller, but by “hanging back to observe social situations” introverted children may in their own way learn the social and emotional skills that educators are now stressing. So, they may understand the importance of collaboration and do it later as they get more mature and figure out their own patterns for it.
Introverts also tend to be more self-aware, which leads to empathy and self-management, and they make responsible decisions because they listen well, are creative thinkers, and reflect and consider consequences, she says.
“When you call on an introvert,” says Silverman, “you always hear a pregnant pause while he or she rehearses the perfect pearl to share with the class.”
In group projects, teachers should perhaps encourage them to participate, but look for other options if possible and not expect them to change dramatically and become very talkative nor should they assess them unfairly if they participate less verbally.
As visual learners they can picture things and may synthesize and learn complex concepts easily through their own problem-solving methods, but struggle with directions, memorization, easy skills, and details, Silverman says. (So, for instance, they may figure out how to learn whole words rather than phonics.)
They should write down ideas before a brainstorming session, take notes during a discussion, and get extra time for responses when possible. Dyads, where they bounce ideas off another student before a discussion openly, might help. (It is best to correct or praise them privately too, Silverman says.)
Elementary school teachers are more likely to be extroverts, and high school teachers are more likely introverts, Silverman says. “Colleges are havens for introverts, and they often excel with all the introverted professors,” she says. “Introverts may appear smarter as they get older.”
Silverman says teachers should envision this scenario to help them understand:
Imagine that a group of teachers has been divided into introverts and extroverts and given a task to do with markers on butcher paper in a set time limit. The extroverts immediately start drawing on the butcher paper while they talk and decide exactly what they want the finished product to look like. We are doers—we process actively. The introverts are very quiet at first, thinking about the task, then they talk about it together and plan how to execute it. No marks are made on the butcher paper until around 15 minutes before the time is up. That’s the difference between action and reflection.
She also is fond of recalling a story a teacher told her after one of her lectures.
“Her middle school class was involved in small group projects and one group really wanted to hear the ideas of a particular student who was creative but introverted. She overheard one of them excitedly tell the boy: ‘We really need your input on this. Think about it and get back to us.’”
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