Teaching Introverted Students: A Guide for Educators and Parents
In recent years, renewed cultural interest in introversion—a personality type that tends to gain energy from being alone and find social interactions draining—has spawned many online quizzes, quippy t-shirts, books, and podcasts.
When it comes to helping students succeed, however, it is important to push past the pop-culture references to find a deeper understanding of who introverts really are and how teachers, administrators, parents, and even students themselves can create a learning environment that supports and empowers young introverts as well as it does extroverts.
What Is an Introvert?
Introverts are people who tend to prefer a quiet, calm atmosphere and may become overstimulated or drained by busy or fast-paced environments. Extended or intense social interactions tend to deplete their energy, and they often prefer spending time in a quiet environment after interacting in a busy social setting.
Introversion is often mistaken for shyness; however, the terms are not interchangeable. Shyness is a feeling of discomfort or awkwardness in social settings. While some introverts may prefer to avoid social settings entirely, others may enjoy them, but seek time alone after interacting in a group setting.
Common characteristics of an introverted student may include:
Keep in mind that introversion is a personality trait that’s manifested differently depending on the person and the circumstance. Some may prefer not to socialize at all, while others may suffer from anxiety in some social situations. Others may enjoy certain types of social situations in small doses. Thus, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy to help introverts be successful in the educational environment.
It’s also important to keep in mind that introversion is a personality trait, not an impediment to learning or something to be “fixed.” However, educators and parents—who may be introverts themselves—can still benefit from recognizing how to create an environment in which introverts feel like they can be themselves and thrive academically and socially.
The concept of personality types, including introverts and extroverts, was introduced by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology. He suggested that introverts tend to interpret the world subjectively, while extroverts interpret the world more objectively. This work has formed the basis of many psychological systems, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI).
Introverts vs. Extroverts
Extroverts often offered as the opposite of introverts, are people who tend to be outgoing, energetic, and willing to engage with others. According to Jung, extroverts tend to be interested in the people and things around them. They are sociable and often more outwardly confident and less fearful. However, they may also be too eager to please, avoid time alone, and be less capable of self-reflection.
Common traits associated with extroverts include an outgoing personality, an affinity for group work, action orientation, and distractibility. They tend to be talkative and may experience feelings of isolation when spending time alone.
The difference between introversion and extroversion is more than just personality types—it turns out the brains of introverted and extroverted people are wired differently. Studies show that introverts tend to have more activity in the frontal lobes of their brains, where internal processing, problem-solving, and planning tend to take place. Extroverts tend to have higher brain activity in the temporal lobes and posterior thalamus, where sensory processing is thought to occur.
While introverts and extroverts are often positioned as being stark opposites, the reality is that personality types are more nuanced. Being an introvert versus an extrovert is a spectrum—you aren’t necessarily one or the other. Students, as well as teachers and administrators, can fall somewhere in the middle, or experience some days where they feel extroverted and others where they feel more introverted.
Now that you have a clearer understanding of what introverts are (and are not) and the common traits they may share, let’s consider methods to help introverted students succeed in the classroom.
Modifying Learning Formats and Instruction for Introverts in the Classroom
The statistics on how many students, and people in general, tend to display introverted characteristics are unclear, possibly due to the difficulty many people have in self-identifying as one or the other. However, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts and a recognized expert on introversion, suggests that between one-third and one-half of all people in the United States are introverts.
Teaching introverts can represent a difficult challenge to teachers, as a large portion of instruction time in the modern classroom is spent in group activities and collaboration. This approach can be draining to introverts, who need quiet reflection time to recharge and refresh. Some classroom markers, such as qualifying student engagement by raised hands, simply don’t work for introverts.
Yet, educational studies often show group work is beneficial to many students. Can such educational approaches be tailored to support introverted learning styles? Here are a few strategies teachers can employ:
Instead of continual group work, try moving back and forth between quiet, solitary work and group projects. This will give introverted students the time they need to quiet their brains and prepare for more interaction.
You might also try an approach called Think-Pair-Share (TPS), which provides the benefits of group work, such as collaboration, but still provides introverts with the quiet reflection time they need.
- Think: Ask students to provide a written response to a question related to a recent topic, a film clip, or new material.
- Pair: Students pair up with another class member to share their thoughts and discuss their views.
- Share: Each pair shares the main points of their paired discussion with the entire class.
In addition, teachers may test dimming the lights of the classroom, using white noise during quiet work times, and reducing overly bright colors and busy patterns, which may contribute to sensory overloads in some introverted students.
Teaching Techniques for Introverts at Different Grade Levels
Introverted students learn best when group work is balanced with individual study time where they can think and problem solve on their own. Here are a few best practices to support introverted students in the classroom, broken down by grade level. Keep in mind that some of these techniques apply to all grade levels.
Middle School Students
High School Students
Resources for Teaching Introverts
Supporting introverts in the classroom is just one of the many challenges teachers face in the classroom. But since as many as half of all students may be introverts at least part of the time, this is a challenge worth rising to. Here are a few resources aimed at helping students, their parents, teachers, and administrators help introverts in the classroom.
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts with Susan Cain [Podcast]: Susan Cain, well known for her best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, hosts this podcast on topics such as classroom participation, parent and child fit, and social media.
- Susan Cain: Education Introverts [Video]:Susan Cain discusses how schools (and the culture) often encourage introverted students to be extroverts, instead of understanding that some students are wired differently. Many teachers, though well-intentioned, are not familiar with how class participation requirements can punish introverts.
- Teaching Introverted Students: How a “’Quiet Revolution”’ Is Changing Classroom Practice | Education Week: This article in Education Week covers several important topics teachers and administrators should be aware of as they strive to help introverted students, including tips on how to help these students succeed. It also covers the concept of “think-pair-share” more deeply.
- Classroom Activities for Introverted Students from Concordia University-Portland: This blog post offers teachers tips and activities to help introverted students succeed in the classroom. Suggestions include paired photography projects, growing a plant, and creating smaller group projects.
- The Teacher Toolkit Section on Independent Activities: A fantastic resource for teachers looking for ways to engage students in independent activities suited to introverts. Each suggestion includes in-depth directions as well as suggestions for elementary, secondary, and Spanish classes.
- When Schools Overlook Introverts | The Atlantic: This article, by teacher Michael Godsey, discusses the long-term impact of overlooking introverts in education. He interviewed students and teachers alike to better understand how schools can support introverted students and what happens when quieter students are not given the tools they need for success.