How you can help introverts flourish in the classroom
Yes, introverts tend to speak out less in class and during group work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re shy or less likely to make a valuable contribution.
The key difference lies in what energizes introverts and extroverts, says Chrissy Romano, a fourth-grade teacher in New Jersey and author of Quiet Kids Count: Unleashing the True Potential of Introverts (Times 10 Publications, 2019).
“When they are around people all the time and when they go to a party and there’s a lot of action, extroverts are energized,” says Romano, a self-described introvert who presents at large education conferences. “Introverts won’t mind going to the same party, but after an hour or an hour and a half, that kind of stimulation will drain their batteries.”
This, of course, has implications for how educators support their classroom introverts, who often earn good grades, follow directions and prepare well, but don’t seek attention, she says.
A classroom’s physical environment plays an important role: Bright lights, overstuffed shelves and walls that are covered with posters can overstimulate and wear out introverts. Educators should also recognize that wide open, collaborative seating arrangements can sometimes stifle an introvert’s creativity, says Romano, who teaches at Nellie K. Parker School in New Jersey’s Hackensack Public Schools.
“It’s OK to have places for kids to work together in groups; kids have to learn to work together,” she says. “But you should also provide opportunities for kids to work by themselves.”
In her classroom, she has small and large tables, stools, beanbags, and old-fashioned desks, among other furniture. She also structures group work so students can begin planning individually, which gives introverts quiet time to gather their thoughts. When students come together, they receive chips to hand in when they propose ideas to their groups. “When the extroverts use all of their chips, they can’t talk anymore,” she says. “That means the introverts don’t have to fight for the spotlight. They know they will get a chance to share.”
Romano also has her introverts take notes to other teachers so they can go on short, reenergizing walks. Without a break from the classroom, introverts may resort to asking to go for a drink or to use the bathroom more frequently. “A lot of times, teachers see that as kids trying to escape, but that’s the wrong reason,” she says.
Getting introverts to speak out and make friends
Understanding the differences between extroverts and introverts should become a regular part of teachers’ professional development, says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Broadway Books, 2013).
“From eight in the morning until the middle of the afternoon, introverted kids are in an environment with lots of other people and a million different things going on, and they have to be ‘on’ the whole time,” says Cain. “They’re already operating with a cognitive load.”
Teachers, for instance, can use the “think-pair-share” method to lead class discussions. When posing questions, teachers should give students time to think about answers by themselves, then have them pair up to discuss their ideas, and finally have partners share with the entire class.
“More reticent students are more likely to speak because they’ve already tested their ideas in a safe space,” she says.
Teachers should also connect with parents to help young introverts make friends. “Teachers can find out which child a kid is interested in getting to know, and look for ways to pair those two students in a one-on-one setting where a friendship has a chance of forming,” she says. “That can become a bridge for a quieter kid to get to know other children.”
Want more information? Susan Cain, who also considers herself an introvert, delivered a landmark TED Talk that’s been view more than 20 million times.