In the U.S., where one-third of the population identifies as introverts, it’s safe to say that you’ve got more than one in your classroom. But in this extrovert-optimized world, where being social and outgoing are highly prized and often rewarded, it can feel shameful to be introverted. However, as with extroverts, there are many strengths that introverts bring to society which benefit our culture greatly, and teachers can help students and parents to recognize these strengths to help introverts thrive in their own ways.
Susan Cain, writer, lecturer, and author of the books Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts, addresses these misunderstood and, at times, undervalued members of our population [watch her TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts”]. As Cain explains in an NPR interview, “ ...it stems from a neurobiological difference between introverts and extroverts. Literally, different nervous systems. Introverts have nervous systems that simply react more to everything that's going on around them, and that means they feel more in their sweet spot when there's less stuff happening. And extroverts have nervous systems that react less, which means that they don't get to their sweet spot until there's more stuff happening. And so this is why you see these different behavioral preferences.”
So what are we doing wrong? Overvaluing the kids who raise their hands all the time. Cain suggests evaluating students based on a concept of engagement rather than participation. Doing this allows for various forms of interaction with class content. We are hyper-focused on collaboration at the moment. Remember to mix it up with individual work for those that need to process information internally. And lean more on pair work, says Cain. It’s not as overwhelming to speak to one other person as it can be in a group, where introverts can often feel drained.
This is also beneficial for the extrovert, as they tend to give talking time for their partner’s ideas and are less likely to dominate the conversation in a paired activity; a win-win dynamic.
And how can we get it right? As educators, how can we better serve our introverted students? Here are some suggestions utilizing the strengths introverts bring to the table and engaging them in the classroom:
Build 15 minutes of quiet time into the day or course for independent reading and thought before moving into small group/whole class activities.
Let them observe first in new situations.
Rethink grouping of students based on temperaments to balance personalities.
Ask for answers in pairs instead of calling on individual students.
Allow alternatives during restorative time (recess).
Reprimand them privately to avoid public embarrassment.
Optimize space in your classroom for small group, independent work stations as opposed to the large, one-size-fits-all, monolithic style which does not benefit many.
Use tech tools as a way for students to engage with your class. For example, ask students to submit answers through an online message board, such as Padlet, or to engage anonymously, such as in a Kahoot! game.
A key takeaway is that, for the introvert, emotional security comes before learning; so comfort is necessary before they engage in learning. In fact, these students may opt for quiet observation and then learn the material better when they’ve processed it in their own study time. Teachers can opt for balance between individual, group, and pair work activities when designing curriculum, keep temperaments in mind when forming group work, and give their introverts points for meaningful engagement as well as extra processing time. These are small changes that will all help to make school a less anxiety-producing experience for the introverts in your care.