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.
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.