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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:

  • Creativity
  • Active listening
  • A dislike of small talk and group work
  • A preference for spending time alone, particularly after social interactions
  • Careful consideration before taking a risk
  • Ability to focus on one task for an extended period
  • Preference for deep thought and reflection

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.

How Introverts Became a Thing

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.

This means that the growing emphasis on group work and active learning classrooms may not create an optimal learning environment for a significant number of students.

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.

  1. Think: Ask students to provide a written response to a question related to a recent topic, a film clip, or new material.
  2. Pair: Students pair up with another class member to share their thoughts and discuss their views.
  3. 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.

Elementary Students

  • Create Quiet Spaces: Introverted students may become overstimulated in a busy class environment. A quiet corner or reading niche can provide introverted students with a space to recharge and reset, allowing them to reenter and successfully engage in a more stimulating learning environment.
  • Use White Noise: Many introverts are better able to focus when white noise is used in the background. This helps them block out distracting sounds and may allow introverts to think and recall information more easily.
  • Add Contemplative Exercises: Introverts prefer to think before responding, which is a trait that many extroverts can benefit from. Consider offering an image, question, or prompt and asking students to reflect on their thoughts quietly for five minutes before starting a group discussion.
  • Explore the Concept of Introverts and Extroverts in Class: Younger students may not be familiar with the concepts of introverts and extroverts and what that may mean for the way they learn. Explain that others may perceive and learn in different ways and that is okay.
  • Be Careful Not to Typecast Students: Remember that introversion and extroversion are a spectrum of personality traits. Students may oscillate between the two personality types day to day and week to week. Some students may display traits of both personality types.

Middle School Students

  • Create Flexible Seating Arrangements: In addition to creating a quiet space, consider the needs of introverted students when designing your classroom layout. Mobile or flexible seating such as stools, yoga balls, and floor seating options allow the classroom to easily switch back and forth from a group setting to individual work stations.
  • Use Think-Pair-Share: Consider using hybrid group work strategies such as “think-pair-share,” where students write down their thoughts, discuss it in pairs, then enter a class-wide discussion. This can help balance the educational needs of both introverts and extroverts.
  • Provide Choices: When possible, allow students to choose how to complete certain tasks. For example, allow students to choose between writing, drawing, or talking about their thoughts on a topic.
  • Give Warnings for Transitions: Introverted students perform best when they know what to expect. Be mindful of transition periods and give five- or ten-minute countdown warnings before switching gears.
  • Allow Noise Canceling Headphones: Introverts enjoy diving deep into their thoughts and their work. Noise-canceling headphones can allow them to focus, even in a busy or crowded classroom environment.
  • Thank Students for Participating: Compliment students who participate in discussions, ask questions, or contribute to open discussions. Participation often does not come naturally to introverted students and positive reinforcement may give them the courage to participate more often.

High School Students

  • Provide a Daily Class Schedule: Some introverted students struggle with unfamiliar situations and fast transitions. Posting a daily schedule or sharing a syllabus can reduce surprises, providing students with much-needed time to adjust and prepare for these changes.
  • Reconsider Class Participation: Many curriculums use class participation rates as a portion of students’ grades. However, introverts may not be comfortable raising their hand to answer a question. Calling on students who haven’t shared recently or asking eager students to allow other students to speak before sharing again can prevent extroverted students from dominating classroom conversations.
  • After Asking a Question, Wait: After posing a question in a group discussion, give the class five to ten seconds before calling on a student. Introverts often spend longer thinking, and waiting can give them time to gather their thoughts.
  • Allow Alone Time: In high school classrooms, a “quiet corner” may not be feasible. Allow students to work outside, in the library, or in a meeting room where they can focus more deeply on their work.
  • Pay Attention to Your Language: It is important not to look at introversion as a challenge or negative trait that must be overcome. It’s an aspect of personality, not a pathology. However, providing introverts with a supportive learning environment can help them flourish.

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.