3 Ways to Make Elementary School Classrooms Better for Introverts

an introvert in an elementary school classroom

Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.

Susan Cain, Quiet

Humans are social creatures by nature; that cannot be denied. But how far will we go to ensure that our children are constantly socializing? As it turns out, we’ll go pretty far.

Our obsession with creating the extroverted child is most evident in the elementary school classroom. In many schools, children sit at circular tables rather than individual desks, and then they gather on the carpet in an even larger circle for class discussion. They are encouraged to speak as often, and to as many people, as possible (at the teacher’s discretion, of course). Here, the extroverted child thrives and the introverted child fades into the background.

However, elementary school does not have to equate to the downfall of introverts. Here are three ways we can make classrooms better for them.

How to Make Elementary Classrooms Better for Introverts

1. Have a designated “quiet space” in the classroom where introverted students can sit and work uninterrupted if they become overwhelmed.

It’s no secret that introverts often wish they were in a dark and quiet room by themselves, rather than in a noisy group of people. However, this is not because introverts are “people-haters” by nature. Rather, it’s due to the introvert’s tendency to become easily overstimulated. The bright fluorescent lights of the elementary school classroom, paired with the rowdiness of most young students who are kept in a classroom all day, can equal total stimulation overload.

When introverted students become overwhelmed with sensory input, it becomes difficult for them to learn (as you may recall from your elementary school days!). When overstimulated, introverts become stressed and will begin to feel the effects of cortisol overproduction on their cognition. This means they won’t be able to process new information as well as they normally would.

Cortisol might even impair their physiological well-being. If you’ve ever experienced a stomach ache, nausea, shaking, a headache, or other physical symptoms due to overstimulation (a.k.a. an “introvert hangover”), then you know what this is like. Having a quiet place for introverted students to go and recuperate is a great start toward making the classroom more introvert friendly.

2. Stop telling parents their introverted kids need to “come out of their shell.”

One of the most important steps to ensuring that introverted students are getting an optimal education is making sure they feel just as comfortable in the classroom as extroverted students. It’s important to note the role of comfort in the introvert’s life. Comfort is not always an easy thing to come by for the overstimulated and overwhelmed introvert, but when we do feel comfortable, we thrive. Ensuring that introverted students feel safe and comfortable in the classroom is crucial to their overall learning experience.

Blatantly telling introverted students that they need to speak more is basically telling them that in order to be a valuable member of the class, they need to have the same level of sociability as their extroverted classmates. It’s important that we teach introverts from a young age that their introversion is an asset, not a flaw. I spent much of my elementary school career feeling less valuable than the plethora of extroverted students that seemed to engulf me. It wasn’t until I had a teacher that acknowledged my inherent quietness as a great strength that I began to feel confident in my ability to be an active part of the classroom.

3. Provide non-verbal alternatives for class participation marks (or eliminate participation grades altogether).

The fear that is often associated with the words “class participation” is not exclusive to introverts with social anxiety. In fact, many introverts are uncomfortable with the prospect of speaking in front of a large group of people. When we become stressed or uncomfortable, our amygdala sends our body into full-tilt “fear mode,” activating our fight or flight response (also called the fear response). When their fear response is activated, introverted students are unable to learn effectively, and are therefore at a disadvantage to their extroverted classmates.

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To put things into perspective, consider the primal purpose of the fear response. When there is a threat to our survival, learning long division or trying to understand Shakespeare is the least of our worries. While the vast plains of Africa have now been replaced by the classroom, the fear response essentially holds the same purpose: to keep you safe.

To improve introverted learning by eliminating the effects of the fear response, give your introverted students the option to write their thoughts instead of speaking them out loud before in the group. Perhaps ask them for thoughts or feelings on the content that was taught that day. Besides the elimination of the effects of the fear response, many introverts will actually be able to contribute ideas that are more indicative of their intellectual capability when they are not asked to come up with them on the spot in a collaborative environment.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, perfectly sums up the ridiculousness of participation grades: “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” Nevertheless, even with innovators like Cain speaking out about how the education system overlooks introverted learning, we’re still doggedly adhering to the same old tactics. It’s time for the education system to change.

It’s Time We Start Valuing Introverts

In an increasingly technological world, it’s important that we nurture the deep thinking that introverts bring to the classroom. With almost everything we need to know only a google search away, we’ve become accustomed to quick responses that require little thinking. On the contrary, as an introvert, I live and breathe the word “overthinker.” For most of my life, that word had been accompanied by shame and self-doubt. However, I’m finally no longer seeing it as a flaw, but rather an asset in a world that needs more thinkers.

The elementary school classroom is where children learn and grow. Let’s not condition young introverts to think that the way that they are is wrong. Let’s encourage deep thinking, because when it’s as equally valued as talking, introverts have the chance to shine!

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