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.
Highly Sensitive managers are one way your organisation can solve the problem of managers with poor 'soft skills'.
Managers can make or break a person’s experience at work, due to the close contact they have with team members, and the effect this has on their daily work lives. You’ve heard that people leave managers, more than they leave jobs. So, having managers who work well with their teams is essential to retaining your best people.
In these times of increased movement between jobs, due to re-assessing working conditions and alignment with purpose, retaining your best talent is one of your top priorities. How do you do it? By offering more incentives and perks? Increasing salaries? There are several approaches to take, which you’re no doubt already working on. Here, I offer one, perhaps surprising, way to ensure you have managers (or HODs, or supervisors) who excel in ‘soft skills’ – the human aspect of managing well: choose managers with Highly Sensitive temperaments.
A recent study by the Australian College of Applied Professions found these results:
"65% say their manager struggles with soft skills…. The biggest perceived gaps" are in empathy (27% - i.e. 27% of employees in the study said their manager struggles with empathy), effective communication (25%), active listening (21%), flexibility (21%), and emotional intelligence (20%).
In addition, "1 in 2 remote employees are concerned about interacting with their manager when they return to the workplace. This is due to managers’:
65% is a concerning majority. You might consider improving these gaps through training – but how effective is training in changing a person’s ingrained habits and even personality? Some of these interpersonal skills can be taught more effectively than others, such as active listening and effective communication. A person can learn to be more empathetic. But emotional intelligence is a long-term learning process, and empathy and flexibility are also the result of long practice, and a strong desire to develop them.
A different option, which overcomes these difficulties, is to hire and promote Highly Sensitive managers – and make sure their workplace has the conditions which allow them to thrive. People with a Highly Sensitive temperament are naturally empathetic, deeply interested in and responsive to others and aware of their needs, notice subtleties - including how someone is feeling and little differences in their condition - and consider ‘the big picture’. All of these contribute to emotional intelligence and the ability to respond flexibly and appropriately to team members’ ideas, needs, and talents.
You wouldn't want all managers to have this same temperament; but having a good mix will help eliminate some of these too-common difficulties between managers and their teams. A good strategy is to aim for the same average ratio (of Highly Sensitive to non-Sensitive) as naturally exists in the population: around 20%.
How many Highly Sensitive managers does your organisation have? Are there systems in place to identify and support them, so that their innate gifts can shine and be put to excellent use?
Soft skills aren’t the only area Highly Sensitive people excel in. Here’s a list of some of the other benefits they bring to their workplaces, especially when able to thrive.
Photo 1 by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash
Photo 2 by Sincerely Media on Unsplash
Performance reviews can be stressful for both managers and their team members.
Here are some ways to help it work better when dealing with Highly Sensitive/Responsive team members - so your organisation can make the most out of their valuable contribution.
1. A little is a lot
Those with a Highly Sensitive temperament will probably do better with feedback given in small amounts over time, rather than a lot all at once. It might be helpful to devise a plan for this with them, so that the traditional performance review is more of a re-cap than a big event.
HS people become overwhelmed when a lot of data is presented at once (because their system is trying to take it all in and process it deeply). Being evaluated for their performance is also highly stressful – for anyone, yes, but even more so for a Highly Sensitive person. This is because they want so much to do well, and are always evaluating their own performance, combined with their intense awareness and immersive experience.
With these two things coming in one package – lots of data and being observed and judged on their performance – those formal, once-or-twice-per-year evaluations are one of the worst ways to review a Highly Sensitive person’s performance and progress.
Good news! HS people are especially conscientious, dedicated, reflective, and self-aware. This makes them perfect candidates for a different approach to feedback.
As I suggested above, devise a plan with them for how you can both approach feedback effectively. You might find that you only need to give gentle nudges and suggestions (certainly a lighter load for you). Figure out what works, together, and you’ll be pleased with the result.
2. Consider: are they already aware?
Because they are especially conscientious, dedicated, reflective, and self-aware, Highly Sensitive team members might deal with problems before you’re even aware of them. Noticing and acknowledging this is a good way for you to recognise their self-reliance, and for them to recognise their own improvement.
3. Go gently
When giving feedback on performance, ask questions first. You want to be sure that you haven’t assumed something – and to find out what they’re aware of.
When giving suggestions for improvement, offer encouragement: acknowledge the strengths or skills they have which will help them make the change, and offer support as they do it – continued suggestions, or access to resources, for example. Ideally, remind them that this doesn’t mean their whole performance on the job is in question.
4. Ask them for suggestions
Apart from giving them feedback, ask Highly Sensitive team members for suggestions regarding the workplace. Their greater awareness and processing of subtleties gives them valuable insight. Take advantage of it.
5. Work together towards goals
Be aware of their unique abilities and encourage them towards their real potential.
I hope that these suggestions have provided some helpful ideas for effectively communicating performance feedback with your Highly Sensitive team members. I’d be interested to hear what happens when you implement (any of) these, so let me know how it goes in the comments.
Here are some general recommendations for creating a physical environment at work which reduces some of the negative stimulation that Highly Sensitive people might be experiencing - increasing their wellbeing, productivity, and beneficial connection with others.
ARTIFICIAL & FLUORESCENTS
Natural light is best for us all, but HS people need it more than most. We really struggle with high levels of artificial light – especially fluorescents. The negative effects of fluorescent lighting have been revealed in various studies - although claims are a little controversial. Two main reasons are that:
(1) They emit only a small spectrum of light, in comparison to the full colour spectrum that the Sun does - at the blue end.
(2) They tend to flicker, whether it's observable or not.
Thought.Co has an article which lists these negative effects and their cause. (Some of these aren't the sole cause of such results, but a contributing factor or found in the same situations as other more influential factors).
If these aren't of much concern, or you feel skeptical about them, consider the energy, lifespan and similar aspects, as explained here. As this article notes, anyone who has environmental sensitivities (the best known are those with light sensitivities and autism disorders) will be affected by the lighting in their workplace, and fluorescents are the worst offenders here.
Remember that Highly Sensitive people respond more to everything - good and bad. Any change which is helpful to them will result in increased performance and wellbeing beyond that of others.
HS people are also sensitive to bright light – so sitting near large windows, of the type in many high-rise office buildings, which lack blinds to reduce the glare and level of brightness, is unhelpful.
Introduce plants into the office space. If you have some, add more. Let HS team members take care of them – and even choose them. They’ll take all the variables into account, and will be consistent with their care. The plants don’t need to be expensive, and will give a good return for investment due to their positive effects.
Create outdoor break areas which are:
(a) away from busy roads,
(b) truly free of cigarette smoke (have a completely separate area for smokers, where the smoke doesn’t affect other break areas),
(c) quiet and peaceful (you might have one for those who want to chat and interact, and others for those who want downtime),
(d) with clean, relatively comfortable seating, and
(e) ideally in a natural space, or at least with some garden areas (this means actual garden – visually attractive and varied, not lawn and a few low plants near a carpark). If your workplace is close to a park or two, bonus!
Do these sound like luxuries? Exposure to the natural environment - plants, quiet, nature sounds - is vital for us all, but especially so for those with High Sensory Intelligence. We take in so much through the day that our senses need space for rest and replenishment. Break areas which are truly a break from the office environment - including, where needed, from colleagues - will increase your High Sensory team members' effectiveness.
These are a few inexpensive and not terribly difficult steps you can take to help make your workplace more HSP-friendly. You don't need to have a garden like the one above (it's part of the Roma Street Parklands, so I don't think any of us will measure up to it!) or the most modern outfitted office. Just do what you can - and remember, every step you take in this direction will lead to improved performance from your Highly Sensitive team members, with all they have to give.
For more individualised and comprehensive recommendations - and an assessment of your actual workplace - a bespoke consultation is the answer.
How do you feel when you immerse yourself in nature for a time - a bush walk or beach visit - or just sit in your garden or the local park? Do you feel more calm and energetic at the same time? Do your problems seem less burdensome, and do you have more ideas about how to work at solving them? Do you feel less annoyed, less flustered, less worried about things which just before seemed so important?
These are some of the effects I feel from being in nature, and there's a lot of information available about how beneficial it is. The Queensland State Government recommends it for mental and physical health, while Health.com tells us that it lowers depression and stress, adds a burst of happiness, restores attention levels (focus), and increases our immunity. For a deeper dive, see this article from Positive Psychology.com .
I've been thinking, the past week, about why we need nature - beyond the obvious reasons like food and air. I believe we need it because our bodies are part of nature. Our modern lives are fast and busy; even more so when compared to how people lived for all of human history until a couple of hundred years ago - even compared to 100 or 50 years ago. We buy food that is immediately available from shelves; travel in cars at fast speeds, which get us large distances quickly; find information quickly and easily; hear reports of many things happening in the world; speak on the phone or over the internet to people far away.
Our bodies, though, are set to the rhythms of the natural world - the rising and setting of the sun; the weather; our years of life - and the fast and noisy pace at which we live works against those rhythms. Our sleep/wake cycle is triggered by light, and set to the time of an earth day and night. If you sit in a garden or nature park, you'll hear birds, cicadas in summer, and the sound of the breeze in the trees. You'll see that breeze move the leaves and branches, and regard the slow passing of the sun across the sky. You'll see clouds form and change, feel the air on your skin, and observe butterflies moving from plant to plant. Flowers open and close with the sun, plants grow through the days and change with the seasons; trees flower, and leaves dry and fall off. All of these are gradual, slow things, each happening in its time. Nature accomplishes what's needed deliberately and slowly, compared to our regular days. When we sit in nature, we remember that, and feel the peace that comes from regulating our bodies again with that slower, gentler, more deliberate pace.
When we go on without stopping to sit in these natural rhythms, our bodies get more and more out of step with what they need. We feel stress, discomfort, or frustration; we get sick, or feel overwhelmed or disheartened. When you sit in a garden or take a walk in the bush, your body resets itself to those natural rhythms from which it came. This helps us feel calm, encouraged, hopeful, less frustrated and stressed in general, more open to possibilities, and less likely to snap at someone (including ourselves). Things seem to have their place, and we can manage them again.
This is why 'being in nature' isn't just for excursions and special events - to be left to the weekend, when there's time. We need it regularly. At lunch, during the day, and in the evening. Have plants in your office (real ones, ideally), water and take care of them; have natural light and some trees or other nature in your view, if at all possible. Give enough time for lunch that people can go to a park or for a walk. They need more than a prepared sandwich in a plastic container from the canteen/café nearby and a bench with concrete and maybe some ordered grass and spiky plants to view. Think about how the photos I've included in this blog post have affected you as you look at them (they're my own; no special effects and no amazing places; just simple and real - the kinds of places anyone can be in). Even that has a calming and (small) restorative effect. Consider the power that nature has, even in this removed form. Add to that the greater benefits of being actually in it.
Let yourself, and those in your care, reset to the slower rhythms of nature, and reap the rewards.
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.