Whether they like it or not, introverts are currently getting a lot of attention, in part due to the best selling book “Quiet,” by Susan Cain. People who would have never guessed they were introverted are scoring high on the online tests, leaving many to wonder, “What exactly is this introversion thing?” and “How am I ensuring that I reach all children in an environment clearly geared toward extroverts?”
Carl Jung is credited with identifying extroverted and introverted patterns and habits of behavior. He found that while most people have characteristics of both extroverts and introverts, there is a distinct dominant preference for an environment in which an individual works best and feels energized. The introvert’s main focus is the internal world of thoughts and concepts, while the extrovert’s main focus is on the external world of people and activities. These traits and preferences impact our learning styles, social choices, perceptions and judgments.
There are many online tests that indicate if you lean toward the introverted or extroverted end of the personality spectrum. You may have introvert tendencies if you: crave private space and time, find large groups of people to be draining, don’t like to be the center of attention, find external reward systems to be motivating, get “lost” or absorbed in your thoughts and ideas, are easily agitated and irritated if you are not able to have undisturbed or “alone” time, communicate best one-on-one or through writing, and form few, but deep, friendships and attachments.
In her book “Quiet,” Cain stresses the important and often misunderstood difference between shyness and introversion. “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not over-stimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.” There are plenty of shy extroverts and outgoing introverts. Determining if a child is shy or is an introvert is important. When working with shy students, we want to minimize their discomfort and help them learn new strategies if they are interested in becoming more outgoing. When working with introverts, we should be mindful of their needs, including the following:
Introverts need time
Marti Olsen Laney, a psychotherapist and expert on introversion, reports that the difference between extroverted and introverted personalities begins with brain chemistry. Neural pathways in introverts are longer and more complex, perhaps leading to the need for more time to let things really “sink in.” Teachers might be tempted to always call on the first child who raises her hand, but with a simple count to 10, teachers may hear the answers of more children.
Introverts need space
Since introverts recharge in solitude, it is important to provide them space to be alone. In elementary classrooms, this space can be a tunnel, “cave”, or tent. Finding space is more difficult in middle and high schools, especially in over-crowded classrooms. When possible, these students can find some solace in a comfy chair or reading nook in the corner of the classroom. At the least, teachers can assign students who would benefit from more space to the edges of the classroom. Headphones may also provide some much-needed quiet time.
Asynchronous learning can help
Over the past years, the school system has been driven to stress cooperative learning and collaborative projects, which may or may not be academically sound. Cain writes, “research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.” Group work can be especially frustrating to introverts when outgoing students dominate the discussion. It is also difficult for some students to process new information among the chatter and constant interaction upon which many other students thrive.
There is another way. Asynchronous learning uses online resources, which allow students to work together without constraints of time or space. These opportunities can be useful in classroom projects among several students in the same class or huge networks in which peer-to-peer interactions are a part of the learning. There are resources designed specifically to support asynchronous learning that teachers can use to manage, monitor and guide students.
As with any personality trait, balance is essential. An extrovert may find himself in trouble by being too gregarious, motivated by attention, or unable to be alone without getting anxious or depressed. There may be a concern with an introverted child if she has no friends and spends all her time alone, and not by choice. When a student wants to participate in class but is afraid or lacks confidence, then the adults in her life should step up and pay attention. Social skills and strategies can be learned, and parents and school staff can find ways to improve self-esteem by reinforcing the child’s strengths and ensuring the student has opportunities to participate.
As with any learning difference, the outcomes are best when all parties—student, parents and teachers—are flexible, embrace differences and seek to understand each other. If everyone involved is willing to take risks and try new strategies, the student is more likely to reach his or her highest potential.
Jennifer VanBuren is a Georgetown educator and mother of three boys who span the entire spectrum of personality traits.