School is designed for extroverts. It is loud and busy and dictated to by bells and buzzers and the urgency of getting through lessons and assessments. Even recess and lunch are full on. There is co-curricular and meetings to attend, not to mention friendship groups and dramas to negotiate. It is utterly exhausting and depleting for introverts.
What is an introvert?
An introvert gets their energy from being alone. Extroverts get their energy from being with other people. An introvert will feel tired after a lot of time with people, where as an extrovert will feel revitalised. That said, it is a spectrum. There aren’t just two personality types. We all fall somewhere between the two.
There are biological differences between introverts and extroverts that parents and teachers should be aware of:
- Our brains produce dopamine which causes us to seek out stimulation (excitement, noise, risk) so that our brains operate at optimum arousal. Although introverts and extroverts may produce the same amount of dopamine, it is the uptake that is different. Therefore, introverts require less stimulation and sensory input than extroverts to achieve the same amount of brain function.
- The grey matter in the prefrontal cortex of introverts is thicker than in extroverts. This predisposes them to deeper thought, planning and quiet activity.
Obviously this is a very simplified version of our incredibly complex brains.
As 70% of people tend towards being extroverts, the world is largely set up to suit that personality type. That’s okay, but there is a danger of thinking of it as ‘normal’ or ‘better’. It isn’t.
Introverts at School
In classrooms there has been a move towards more collaborative learning, brain storming and group work. However, these processes are the bane of a young introvert’s life. They don’t want to discuss ideas straight away. They want time to think. They want to get things straight in their own minds before they share them. They need a quiet environment, and they hate managing work in groups of people they don’t know well. Very often, these kids are trying to learn in an environment that doesn’t suit them.
A common report comment introverts receive is, “Joe/Josie is attentive in class but she needs to participate more in class discussion.” Why? Why is it so important for students to participate in class discussion? What is the goal for students? Many students faced with this situation shut down altogether. Getting them to do it more often makes them shut down more often. If we want kids to learn and develop a love of learning, can’t they do that without participating in class discussion?
Santa Maria College Psychologist, Jane Carmignani says, “If we are talking about the nurturing of the whole child shouldn’t we do that in the context of their personalities? Personalities are, after all, fairly innate. Yes, they can be developed and we work on areas that help us in our relationships or careers, but we are born with temperaments. This needs to be considered in education. Not everyone will be a public speaker or comfortable in a group. And that is okay. If a child is happy and developing and learning, then that’s okay.”
A similar bias exists in the sphere of school leadership. Often we value a particular kind of leadership. We privilege outgoing, vocal, popular personalities. We ask introverts to show more ‘leadership’. Isn’t it possible to be a leader without having an extroverted personality? History would tell us it is. President Obama? Mahatma Gandhi? Many of the qualities of introverts make them outstanding leaders. They listen, they think carefully about ideas and they can cope with the solitude that comes with leadership. Remember, it’s lonely at the top!
At least 30% of all students are introverts, so it is important that schools cater for their needs. That might include:
- Quiet times and quiet activities in class
- A percentage of work that is solitary
- Quiet spaces in the school. Schools tend to think of libraries as the ideal place for introverts. Remember that lots of introverts like being outside, particularly in nature. Create outdoor places that are conducive to a bit more quiet
- An awareness and valuing of this difference in personality type in students. We need to stop equating busy and loud with ‘normal’
- Just because a child is introverted doesn’t mean they are shy. Often they have a lot to say, they just would prefer to say it in a smaller forum. One on one time is important.
Introverts at Home
Introverts get home from school and all they want to do is hang out in their rooms, or play with the dog, or quietly read and lounge around. Extroverted parents can often believe there is something wrong with their introverted child. There isn’t. Parents may make statements like, “I don’t think she is getting the most out of life” or “I’m worried about her. She doesn’t seem to have many friends”.
Because society tends to associate being social with being happy, schools and families will often push introverts to be more social. They will try to get them involved in more activities or orchestrate more social activities. It is all done with the best intentions, but we need to stop and let kids be who they are. Adults can’t get caught up in the idea that being social and popular is being successful. Being thoughtful and well liked is also to be celebrated. In fact, there are so many ways of being, and most of them are just fine.
If you have a child who is an introvert it is important to understand, there is absolutely nothing wrong. It is not a condition or a disability or a problem that needs fixing. It is a personality trait. Leave it alone. In fact, dwell on the positive things about introverts:
- They don’t need others to recharge their batteries. They are very self reliant. They tend to avoid being caught up in playground drama.
- They have strong, meaningful relationships as they avoid small talk and they communicate authentically.
- They are generally good listeners. When people talk to them they know they are being heard. It’s a very appealing quality in a person.
- They are often very thoughtful and when they do share ideas, those ideas are worth listening to.
- They tend to notice the things that others don’t, whether that be risk, other people’s emotions or recurring themes.
Mrs Carmignani sums it up beautifully when she says, “Being an introvert is great. Being an extrovert is great. I think perhaps the key is authenticity. Brene Brown says, “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” We need to pay that respect to kids too, by embracing them in all their intro and extro vertism.”
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single sex and co-ed. Currently she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia.
The legendary…Jane Carmignani