I wrote here about “labelling” people as introvert or anything else and how the only problem is with the word “label”. Identifying and understanding your introvert or extrovert tendencies is nothing but useful and empowering. But what about some practical tips for teachers (and parents) to ensure that introverts are served as well as extroverts in a learning setting?
Bearing in mind that teachers will not necessarily know – and shouldn’t assume – which students are introverted and which are reserved or disengaged from communication for any other reason, here are some ideas.
Top Tip 1
No one needs to be “brought out of themselves” if they are very happy being “in themselves”. They might need to be taught to value themselves and grow new skills that might help them grasp opportunities in the wider world but that does not involve needing to change aspects of their personality. “Needs to speak up more in class” – well, maybe but why precisely? For whose benefit? Can you explain to the student who knows the answer but has no desire to say it aloud why it might benefit them to do so? And, more importantly, can you help them do it without simply telling them to?
Top Tip 2
Remember that as soon as you introduce a collaborative situation, even pairing students with others they know well, you change an introvert’s mental mode from “learning” to “social”. They are now not in the best frame of mind to learn, with all their focus going on how to manage the social situation. “What are the others thinking? Am I talking too much/too little? Is everyone else OK? Do I know more than them and how can I show that witghout being arrogant?” Introverted people tend to do their best work and have their best ideas on their own but you also need to facilitate collaborative learning, so how can you do that fairly while knowing that your introverted students won’t usually be doing their best work?
- In the group, can each person be assigned different roles so they have personal responsibility?
- How about giving each student time to think on their own before coming back to the group? Ask the group to jot down ideas individually before any discussion starts.
- How about allowing anyone to say “I concentrate better on my own so can I do this part in my own space and then share what I come up with?”
- How you group students will also be important, allowing each to play to strengths and not be swamped by louder voices.
Top Tip 3
Introverted students use a lot of energy and brain bandwidth answering a question or contributing in class: be aware that for a while before they do this their brain bandwidth is over-occupied by preparing and after that they are recovering. During those times they will not be hearing you as too much of their attention is on the “social” situation.
Top Tip 4
When you ask the class a question, how about saying you don’t want an answer immediately so no one must put a hand up until you say. This gives everyone time to think and prepare. Extroverts can then take more time to think about their answer while introverts can take more time to prepare the words in their head and pluck up courage. Everyone wins! I know you might think that this means everything will take longer but I don’t think time spent thinking is wasted time. I think everyone benefits, those who answer and those who don’t.
Top Tip 5
When you’re going to be requiring students to ask a question or make a contribution in a discussion, if you know that some students find this difficult, you can help them in advance by suggesting that they plan ahead and ask their question or make their point early to get it out of the way. That means they can then relax and enjoy listening to other students – and they might even find the courage to contribute again. The worst thing for an introvert during this type of activity is the knowledge that they’re going to have to speak at some point. This can mean that they gain nothing from the discussion while they’re struggling with their fear.
Top Tip 6
When students are going to be doing a presentation, ask who would like to do it in pairs instead of solo. Sharing the stage with someone else is much easier and gives each one time to settle while the other is talking. Careful how you pair them, though – equal/similar matches are better than opposites.
Top Tip 7
Let them read The Teenage Guide to Friends. It has a section on introversion/extroversion and lots of great ways of thinking about both types. Openly value the skills of both personality types and do not talk as though one is better or more valuable than the other. Talk about the skills we all need to learn rather than making judgments about what sort of personality we should cultivate.
Top Tip 8
When discussing personality be clear about the difference between personality and behaviour. Our behaviour is what we can learn to change (if necessary/desired) but our personality is valuable, precious and part of us. Personality can change somewhat over time but certain underlying traits are our foundations and changing them is not the aim (even if possible, which is doubtful). So we don’t think about changing our introversion, only the habits and behaviours that hold us back. Introverts can learn the thrive brilliantly in an extrovert world – I do!
Top Tip 9
You know that more introverted people need time to themselves, to recover and quieten their minds and regain energy. So is there something you can do to allow this during break/lunchtimes? Can they go to the library? Is there a space in the school which can be a designated quiet place? When i say quiet I don’t mean there has to be a no-talking rule; I mean a place where a person can be quiet in their own head, which crucially means that no one will talk to them.
When I speak in schools or at conferences I always make sure I get some time on my own, time with no one asking me questions or talking to me at all. If necessary, I leave for a walk. That’s self-preservation. If I don’t do that, my brain simply works less well when I have to “perform”.
Top Tip 10
Teach a growth mindset. We improve skills by trying, practising and learning. So we can grow the skills that allow us to perform, share, speak up, even if it’s harder for some than others. Everyone can do this. We just need teachers to help us start and then encourage us to keep trying. Step by step we can learn any skills we want.
Top Tip 11
Understand by listening. If you are an extrovert type you might do your very best to understand an introvert mentality and biology but you almost certainly won’t. Just like someone with hay fever or dyslexia, we have a biology and a brain that works differently from yours. What we need you to do is to listen to what we say about our experiences. We do not regret how we are and I for one wouldn’t change it for anything but I do need you to know that certain situations are difficult and that by the age of 59 I have learnt how to look after myself and succeed. Young people haven’t got that insight or experience but you can help them find it by listening to what they say and pointing them towards other people who feel like them or things that have been written about introversion.
Let me give you an example of how it is for me. The other day, I had two social situations. We were just at that stage of coming out of lockdown and being allowed to see people in gardens. On this particular day, my husband and I went for a long walk with friends and later had other friends to the garden for drinks. That night I slept really badly and I said to my husband the next morning that I thought I was over-socialled and hyper-alert. “Tell me?” he said, and I was able to explain that I physically felt as though I was on alert, anxieties triggered, heart racing. It sounds ridiculous – to be so activated after two sets of good friends for very easy social situations. But social situations mean conversation. I love conversation but it’s exhausting, requiring a lot of concentration followed by going over every sentence many times afterwards.
If you haven’t experienced that it is probably hard to imagine. So all I’m asking is that you believe me and accept that for some of your students and colleagues – and you might not know which ones – that is what it is like. No wonder we need time to ourselves sometimes! And the problem is that, unavoidably, schools are exhausting places for introverts. So anything you can do to recognise that and help us thrive will be very much appreciated. And we’ll learn and perform better, too.
For more, please do read Quiet Power – Growing Up As An Introvert In a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. So many tips for teachers and young people!