Six Strategies to Help Introverts Thrive at School and Feel Understood

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In every classroom, teachers try to engage students who have a variety of temperaments: extroverts, introverts and ambiverts. They work with children who crave sensory stimulation and with those who are highly sensitive to noise and visual distraction.

While one temperament is not better than any other, introverted students are often “overlooked, undervalued and overstimulated in our schools,” said Heidi Kasevich, a 20-year teaching veteran and director of education for Quiet Revolution, an outgrowth of Susan Cain’s best-selling book on the power of introverts.

When Kasevich was a student, she was often told, “Just come out of your shell” and “Just speak up.”

“I had no idea I had an inborn temperament,” she said, “and I often felt unsafe in school environments.” A person’s basic temperament is rooted in biology, with differences emerging in infancy and early childhood. For example, some babies are more sensitive than others to stimuli such as loud noises; and some toddlers are more cautious when presented with novel objects, such as a robotic toy. Many of these careful and sensory-sensitive children grow up to be introverts. 

Now, as a leader of the Quiet Schools Network, Kasevich has worked with Cain to develop accessible techniques to help introverted students “hit the ground running, with a sense of well-being instead of the feeling that ‘there’s something wrong with me.’ ”

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What Do Teachers Need to Know About Introverted Students?

We all fall somewhere on the introvert/extrovert spectrum, said Kasevich. In schools -- which are highly stimulating environments -- introverts are often “expected to fit into the extrovert ideal, and this leads to the danger zone of self-negation, turning inward or withdrawing.”

To better understand the needs of students, teachers can spend some time at the beginning of the year getting to know students’ preferred work and communication styles. For example, said Kasevich, introverts tend to prefer:

  • Conversing one-on-one or in small groups
  • Thinking before sharing aloud
  • Weighing options before making decisions
  • Looking (and assessing risk) before leaping
  • Recharging in a quiet, calm environment  

Thoughtful teachers can help children see their preferences as adding value to the classroom environment and as opportunities for growth.  For example, a disposition toward caution can be nurtured into prudence -- or, as Kasevich defines it, “risk-taking that is rooted in practical wisdom, that takes the time to consider the ‘what-if’s.’ ” Similarly, a proclivity toward listening and reflection supports intellectual humility. And a preference for small-group conversation can bolster perspective-taking skills.

Six Classroom Strategies that Help Introverts Thrive

When Kasevich works with schools and educators, she shares several strategies for creating temperament-inclusive classrooms, including the following.

Make Space for Quiet Reflection: Teachers can take an inventory of the “silence-talk continuum” in their teaching methods, making room for both quiet reflection and active discourse. For example:

  • Provide opportunities for one-on-one conversation within the classroom -- such as think-pair-share.
  • Ask students to first respond to questions on a Post-it note before inviting verbal responses. This primes the pump for students who need more think time.
  • Try a “One-Minute Paper”: Pause in the middle of class and ask students to reflect on what they are learning. Prompts might include: “What’s striking me? What’s challenging me? Why is this relevant? How can I connect this to something else I’m learning?”
  • Count to 10 in your head before calling on students. According to Kasevich, “studies show that three to 10 seconds of wait time helps introverted students and increases the complexity of responses for all students.”  
  • Integrate purposeful silence. For example, put up an image, a painting or a line from a book and ask students to carefully observe and think about it for four minutes.  

Consider the Physical Environment: Because introverts can become overstimulated by the action-packed pace of a school day, “they need time and space to restore their nervous system.” Think about providing niches for quiet reading or mind-wandering. Explore inclusive lunchroom and playground options, such as a coloring table or open library time.

Provide Previews: Some introverted students instinctively avoid unfamiliar challenges, said Kasevich, “so give them a long runway.”  This might take the form of

  • An essential question on the board as class starts
  • An agenda before a meeting
  • A detailed calendar or syllabus (middle and high school)
  • A posted daily schedule (elementary school)
  • A thorough preview of a unit, project or assessment

Watch Your Language: Introverts are sometimes labeled negatively by peers and teachers. The Quiet-Friendly Comment Guide offers teachers with alternatives to common phrases that they can use when providing feedback to students or talking with parents. For example, instead of noting a deficit (e.g. “She needs to speak up more in class discussion”), frame a student’s strengths (e.g., “She is an insightful student who thinks deeply and thoughtfully before responding”).

Scaffold Meaningful Stretching: Teachers can help introverts stretch outside their comfort zones and take comfortable risks.  Since “they won’t take a risk for risk’s sake,” tie needful actions to their passions and interests -- to something meaningful. Framing risks in this way “is the ticket for helping introverts stretch.”  Kasevich gives the example of a student who wants to bring sustainability initiatives to his high school -- a passion that might require becoming a club officer or giving a speech or presentation. Teachers can remind such a student to “keep your mission in mind. Go to auditorium beforehand to practice, and remember a time in the past when you spoke with confidence and conviction.”  

Structure Temperamentally Inclusive Group Work: If you simply put kids into groups with no training, a minority of members will likely do the majority of the talking. Train students in techniques such as brainwriting and design thinking. Establish group norms for inclusive conversation and stick to them.  

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Creating a temperament-inclusive classroom takes time, said Kasevich. It’s about striking the balance between collaboration and individual work, creating a classroom culture that values deep listening, reflective pauses and multiple forms of engagement. “We are not waging war on group work,” said Kasevich. “We want educators to think more broadly about classroom participation and engagement,” creating an environment where all students can thrive.

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