What do Responsive children need to thrive in their school environment?
Let's have a look at school from a young sensitive child's perspective. Most of the children I see tell me that school is 'very loud', 'children hurt each other', 'teachers shout' and they are not allowed to 'be quiet'. They also complain that school clothing can be itchy, the floor is hard, the classroom smells funny and people expect them to say things before they are ready. They also dislike people looking at them or making them the centre of attention (even the extravert HSCs) and get very concerned if another child is upset. The walls are full of overstimulating colours and people talk through all the lessons.
This is a quotation from Barbara Allen's site, Growing Unlimited. Barbara is a British psychologist who works particularly with Highly Sensitive people, including children.
It illustrates some of the problems that arise for Highly Sensitive children at school; things which might not be much of a problem for non-Sensitive children, or which affect the HS children much more.
They are not problem children. They're not fussy, they're not trying to be difficult, and they won't be okay if they just stop worrying about whatever it is.
Highly Sensitive children are insightful, courageous, compassionate and empathetic, intelligent, self-motivated, creative, and thoughtful. As they spend so much of their childhood at school, this environment has a huge, constant effect on them. It's at least partially up to teachers and school leaders whether that effect is positive or negative.
Don’t be overwhelmed here, or anything, but it really is extra-important to help these children get the right messages and the right sort of support. And do you know why it’s extra-important for these children particularly?
Because Highly Sensitive people, children and adults, are more responsive to everything – that is what the temperament means: we’re highly responsive. So Highly Sensitive – Responsive – children respond more intensely to all the input they receive – positive and negative.
This doesn’t mean that teachers or school leaders need to always be on alert and making sure the student is only receiving positive input from their environment. That’s impossible and unneccessary. Highly Sensitive children can be very resilient and are naturally self-regulating. What they need from others – those who have some level of power over their environment – is the conditions which allow them to do this. They will take care of the rest.
So how can teachers and schools help their Highly Sensitive students to thrive? Below, I’ll explain a bit about what these children need, why you might see certain behaviours from them, and how to support them so they can have a positive school experience. There’s a lot to consider, so I’ll just explain a few of each in this post.
Needs of Highly Sensitive children at school
Highly Sensitive children need lower and more gentle lighting, and respond positively to natural light (all children do, but HS children do even more – like I said, this is due to their higher responsivity to everything)
Schools are generally pretty noisy places. Classrooms can be very noisy, if there’s a critical mass of children who are loud, or who don’t listen well to instructions, or are deliberately rebellious to rules and inconsiderate of others. Then there's the noise (and other stress) that comes from having children with developmental disabilities in regular classrooms. (On one hand, it's a kind and generous mission, potentially helpful to those with these disabilities; on the other, it's extremely disruptive to the learning and wellbeing of other children, including those with a Sensitive/Responsive temperament. A balance really needs to be found, so that all gain benefits as far as possible).
High noise levels also result from group work , if the teacher encourages or allows it, doesn’t regulate it well, or children don’t understand how to do it effectively (which is probably often the case – group work is hard to get right, even for adults. But it’s popular and encouraged as an educational strategy).
Some teachers – and principals/vice-principals – have loud voices, or use a loud voice in the classroom. Whether constant or intermittent, this can affect HS children negatively.
Being highly responsive to all stimuli, loud noises are especially startling, and a class teacher with a loud voice (constant loud level) is wearing on their nervous system. Without going into further detail about it, these contribute more to the negative stimuli a HS child is absorbing than you might think. A principal doing this and then joking about it, or being calm afterwards, for example, doesn’t change the negative effect it has. A teacher using a loud voice to do the same thing – towards other students – is also unhelpful, no matter that it wasn’t directed towards the HS child. Directing it at them, of course, is even worse.
Break times are, of course, noisy. This can be really difficult for HS children, who are already experiencing heightened stimulation from previous classes – academic and social. Whether positive or negative, this stimulation is already having its effect. Break times can raise this to a level they’re then unable to manage.
Behaviours and results you might see in Highly Sensitive children who are over-stimulated or overwhelmed:
These are not regular behaviours from Highly Sensitive children. They are a result of unhelpful conditions at school. With more helpful environmental factors, these children will be among the best and most committed students, conscientious, engaged, curious, involved, kind and helpful towards other students, intelligent and mature, and highly resilient. They are internally-motivated, able to think creatively, insightful, wise seemingly beyond their years, and just really pleasant and inspiring to be around – if they can get the conditions they need.
It is such a shame – perhaps a tragedy – that so many children do not experience this side of their wonderful Highly Sensitive nature, and that the world misses out on it, too. As I keep saying, all they really need is a few adjustments that those with power over the environments they live in can effect, and some on-going attention in specific ways from the adults who are most influential in their lives, such as school teachers.
So what can you do to reach this point? I share a few tips below, relating to the needs I've explained above (there are more of both, which I'll make available in a guide to download at a later point).
Supporting Highly Sensitive children at school: what school leaders and teachers can do.
* Managing lighting, whether the light itself or the positioning of the children, will have more of a helpful effect than you can probably imagine. This is one of the easiest things to do, and should have rewarding results.
I'm creating a more comprehensive guide for schools and teachers about these topics, which will cover more aspects (beyond the sensory, and more about that as well), share ideas for responding to the needs of Highly Sensitive children at school, and also help you determine who might have this temperament within your school or classes.
If you want to be notified when this comes out, send me a message here, and I'll put you on my list and send you an e-mail with the download link.
Also send me a message with questions or thoughts you might have about these topics. I'm very interested in discussing them and offering any insights I have for you (as well as hearing yours).
In the meantime, have a look at my FAQ page for answers to questions that I've already provided.
How can you tell whether someone has a Responsive (Highly Sensitive) temperament?
If you'd like to know how to pick out who in your workplace has this temperament, here are some clues - things you might notice in a person.
Whether you notice these things depends on your perceptiveness, as well; so you might not be aware of all of them. You need to know a person well enough to pick up on a lot of these indicators.
If you've noticed a few of these factors in colleagues, then it's likely they have a Highly Sensitive temperament. If you've noticed most or all of them in a person - as you're reading, someone comes strongly to mind - then it's highly likely they're HS/Responsive.
What next? It depends why you want to know. Just being aware that they act this way because they have a temperament which influences their experience of the world can help you to interact more effectively with them. You can realise that when they take longer to complete a task than you would have, it's not because they're slow or unskilled or not aware of other factors, but because they're doing a really good job of it. When they don't want to join in the talk about the latest violent show, it's not because they're unsociable or aloof, but because they're disturbed by it, and haven't watched it.
If you're a team leader, manager, or executive, being aware of who in your team is Responsive/HS will help you assign the right work to the right people, to be understanding of different needs, and to use the skills that these HS people demonstrate.
But if you want to go further - if you want to really harness the strengths and potential of those who are Highly Sensitive in your workplace; if you want to use those strengths to transform the effectiveness of your team and the innovation and foresight of your organisation; if you want to make sure that these team members are thriving at work, not just surviving - then here's what you can do:
What do you have to lose? Knowing this, and acting on it, will only have a positive effect. No harm will come of it, you will not waste resources, and so much good can result if you do act.
Photo credits: 1 - Bruce Mars, Unsplash; 3 - Anete Lusina, Pexels
What is different about people with a Responsive (Highly Sensitive) temperament?
What is so fundamentally different between Responsive (a.k.a. Highly Sensitive) and Unresponsive temperaments? Why do people who are Responsive in temperament, in fact, need anything different - in the way their workplace (or classroom) is set up, or how managers (or teachers) approach working with them?
Let me explain (you can also read my posts about gifts of sensitivity, brain differences, benefits of thriving HS people in workplaces and why you need them on your team, and other differences)- the differences, and the consequences.
The main differences
These are the basic drivers of differences between sensitive and non-sensitive/ responsive and unresponsive temperaments.
This results in:
1. Greater awareness
- what’s going on around them
- what might happen soon
- how things are interacting and are likely to interact to produce results
2. Increased insight/perceptiveness
- how things come together to make sense
- emotional states of other people, and what those might lead to
- what has led to current situations
- how to resolve the problems in those situations
- how to avoid potential problems
- how to get desired results
- a desire to do what one is doing very well
- (due to) understanding why doing something well is important, and the consequences of not
- self-motivated, because they see the reasons for doing or not doing something – can perceive consequences, meaning, etc.
- aware of others’ emotional states, what might have led to them, and how to approach them
- awareness of the experience of others
- awareness of how a person might have arrived at a conclusion
- can place another person’s position on a matter within their map of reality
- awareness of many things means more connections to be made
- deep processing leads to many connections
- those connections result in creative – different – ideas
It also means:
1. Responsive people are overwhelmed by too much data at once
- they have a great capacity to absorb information, but because they are taking in so much, it needs time to process; too much at once overwhelms their system
2. The deep processing their nervous system does needs time, and sufficient calm and quiet.
- thinking on the spot in unfamiliar situations isn’t one of their gifts
- coming up with wise and valuable insights when that information has had the time and space to be processed is one of their gifts
3. Without this time and space to process the large amount of data they take in, the above desirable results are minimised (or halted, depending on the severity of the lack of time and space).
Importance of understanding this:
With conditions which nurture/support the way their temperament works, HS/Responsive people can give forth all of their gifts, as listed above.
With conditions which counter the way their temperament works, their responsiveness is unable to be effective. It turns, instead, into a liability, and they suffer deeply for it.
1. Provide as many ‘right’ conditions as possible. Result:
This is not a threat; it's an opportunity – an invitation to something better. The excellence we can create together – Sensitive and non-Sensitive/ Responsive and Unresponsive.
The role that neurotransmitters play: serotonin and dopamine
I wrote, recently, about serotonin and sensitivity - how a variation of the serotonin transporter gene leads to better decision making, and that the same percentage of people have this gene variation as have a Responsive temperament.
The link hasn't been definitively found yet - I'm not sure it's even been looked for. But it does make sense, when you take into account the many points of data already known about this temperament - like the greater tendency to pause before acting, to make decisions more carefully, and the increased sensitivity to good and bad environments - which correspond with what this serotonin variation does.
There's an even stronger link between the other famous neurotransmitter - dopamine - and sensitivity. You're probably familiar with dopamine as 'the reward chemical', and know that it influences our desire to work towards an expected good.
Our temperaments - and personalities - influence what we consider rewarding; what we're motivated towards and away from.
A Responsive temperament predisposes a person to move towards situations in which they will be able to use their gifts well, and away from those where they won't. For example, they will instinctively seek calm environments and avoid crowded places. You're far less likely to find them at a late-night club than on an overnight hike with friends.
What does this mean for Responsiveness/High Sensitivity?
So, how do we know that the Responsive/Highly Sensitive temperament is innate? And why does that matter for schools, workplaces, and other public places?
Many dopamine alleles (alleles represent variations in a gene) have been found to be associated with High Sensitivity/Responsiveness. A set of 10 of these alleles actually predict a medium-to-high chance of being Highly Sensitive.
These 10 dopamine alleles, like the one we looked at for serotonin, are related to doing better than others in good conditions and worse than others in poor conditions. (This is what's known as differential susceptibility - illustrated by the orchid/dandelion theory).
This is one of the ways we know that Responsiveness is innate: the high correlation of this set of 10 dopamine alleles with this temperament implies that Responsiveness comes much closer to being a genetically-inherited set of traits than any personality trait. (Personality traits are also very heritable, but associated genes haven't been found, as they have for Responsiveness/High Sensitivity).
Why does this matter for the workplace?
Therefore, what do we learn?
That, "it's innate, and it has its advantages" (Elaine Aron).
The value here, for workplaces, schools, and more, is that Highly Sensitive people can't 'get over' the differences which arise from their temperament. It's not something they can, or need to, change.
Just like an un-Responsive or non-Sensitive temperament, a Highly Sensitive or Responsive temperament brings both advantages and disadvantages . They come hand-in-hand.
If a Responsive person can be highly creative, insightful, conscientious, and empathetic; if they can perceive more than others and make more careful decisions, then they also, necessarily, become overwhelmed when there's too much data, without space to process it. They are, correspondingly, more negatively affected by too-bright lights, loud noises, time pressure, and close observation.
You can't get the good without the conditions required for producing it. You can't have a person who's more aware of the nuances without that person also being more affected by them.
If you want the benefits that high Responsiveness brings, you need the conditions which produce them, or allow them to arise.
This is the reason for all the advice I share, all the recommendations for changing workplace environments that I give. The changes you'll make aren't just a nice service to society; they're smart and concerted actions towards harnessing the real potential - all the actual benefits, currently perhaps hidden - of those who have this Responsive temperament. Of providing the conditions which will help them to thrive, not just survive.
Without those changes, your workplace will continue to miss out on the advantages of having thriving Responsive people. Those who are in your team will continue to languish, and the disadvantages of their temperament will keep being a liability - for them and you. A tragedy, and a lost opportunity.
Yet, you have an alternative: harness their strengths, and benefit exponentially.
Which will you choose?
Choose to harness the advantages.
Highly Sensitive people provide an essential service.
The reason they are Highly Sensitive - the reason they are highly aware and deeply process - is so they can provide this service.
We know it's for this reason, because High Sensitivity - Responsiveness - is found consistently at this rate of 15-20% among humans and many animal species. In evolutionary terms, it's 'been selected for'.
What is that essential service?
That 1 in 5 people perceive more and process it in a way that makes more connections between more data. That they use this to provide insight, warnings of danger, pinpoint opportunities, notice the unseen aspects and invisible people, practise and teach others empathy, pause to reflect before acting - avoiding dangers and making better decisions - and provide beautiful, insightful and ennobling works of art: poetry, paintings, stories, music, and more.
The people who do this - the Highly Sensitive/Responsive among us - bring these abilities to all their endeavours. This is the service they provide.
Quite simply, Highly Sensitive people make the world a better place.
Help make it a better place for them.
I've written a few posts about what High Sensitivity is; this infographic summarises the main points about the temperament. It's an easily-shareable resource that can be used to give someone a quick overview, when you need to present the idea, such as before suggesting a workshop for your workplace.
I'm including a link to the file below the image, so you can download and share it, as needed. I hope you find this resource useful - and interesting!
Tamara - Sensitive Thrive is my consulting business. I believe that the world needs Highly Sensitive people who are flourishing. We need their hope, insight, wisdom, and awareness of beauty and possibility. My vision is to help create a culture where this temperament is known, understood and valued; where organisations seek Highly Sensitive people to work for them, because they know what they can do. Where HS people feel like they fit in their workplaces, because those workplaces also fit them. A world where HS people belong, thrive, and flourish, and the world is better for it.