When a family has a quiet child, parents may express the following thoughts: “I wish he would tell me more about his day in school.” “She had a play in school and would not even tell us anything about it.” “She enters a room full of her peers, and she just stands there, frozen, not talking to anyone.” “I wish she would get out more. Go to a park. Meet people.” “She has no friends and does not really care about it.” “She just sits in her room. That’s her thing.” Somehow these statements sound like there is something wrong with the child and parents wish they could change him or her. Parents don’t complain about a social, talkative, go-getter, athletic, singing-dancing, straight A child who has an opinion about everything and is not afraid to loudly express it. Then who are the quiet children and should we try to change them?
Who are the “quiet children”?
Quiet children are not really different from quiet adults, and they belong to the world of introverts. Is there such a thing though, being a complete introvert or extravert? Many resources agree that introversion and extraversion have different degrees. They occur on a spectrum. No one is a complete introvert or complete extravert. Also every introvert and every extravert is different. So who are the introverts then?
If we want to compare the two groups closely, the following conclusions can be made:
Introverts (children or adults): They like being alone. They prefer activities that require mental work. They get their energy from being alone, and when around many people they feel drained. Introverts think before they speak and express their opinion if they had time to think on an issue. They are sensitive when they are punished. When describe something, introverts remember details. They don’t like taking risks. They look for long-term goals. When it comes to perception of happiness, introverts often feel less happy than extroverts, but they also don’t talk about it much or announce to the entire world that their happiness or their feelings in general. They work better in quiet solitude place that allows them to concentrate more without distractions.
If you wanted to get into the brain of the extravert, re-read this paragraph oppositely reversing the conditions and behaviors.
Are quiet people born or made? Do brains differ? What about social environment?
Many studies suggest that indeed, our brains process information differently and get tired from stimulation at a different rate. I have noticed that often I observe a very soft-spoken mom (and sometimes dad) in school, who are shy and avoid the spot light, and I had both of their children in my class. Both kids, like the parent, were extremely shy, quiet, didn’t like public speaking, didn’t like any type of argument, and avoided conflict at all cost. Sometimes, however, to very energetic, loud, and extroverted parents is born a very introverted child. It can be challenging for parents and children. So, our temperament can be hereditary as well as being conditioned by our environment. I just had a conversation with a teacher in our school who recommended that students take their introvert/extravert tests later in school and also take them several times. Students are desperate to understand “who they are,” but they also like to diagnose themselves too quickly: “Well, I am not presenting my paper to the entire class because I am an 88% introvert” or “I can’t keep my mouth shut and stop laughing because I am an extreme extravert.” People can learn to hide behind these labels, and students beginning the age of nine and ten often mask their behaviors. They will choose to be “anything” in order to avoid certain exposures, pains, activities.
Social environment is key to child development. Extraverted children sometimes are referred to as “dandelion children”: they don’t need much to thrive, they adept easily, they “grow” anywhere, they take over space, they overpower. Introverted children are often referred to as “orchid children”: they need special conditions, they don’t possess screaming personalities, but when the conditions are right – they bloom. For parents who have quiet children, it’s important not only accept their quiet children (even if they are so different from their rock-star parents), but to celebrate and appreciate their quiet temperament.
Is there an in-between?
Yes, there is. These people are referred to as ambiverts. They are in the middle of the spectrum between extraverts and introverts, or simply share some of the characteristics of introverts and extraverts. Some bloggers and social researchers use the term “extraverted introvert” or “social introvert” and these people have some common behaviors. They like social spot light, but their batteries run out and they recharge in solitude. The behavior of these people can be unpredictable when they go from a fully charged state to the confusing state of being drained. This is when we tell someone in the middle of the gathering: “Common, smile” or “Why are you ruining the party?” Ambiverts feel comfortable in the crowd, they like to speak out, they like the spotlight, but at the end of the party they like to be solo and read some serious books.
How can a teacher help a quiet child? (This can be helpful to anyone who works with any group of children).
The school is a place for extraverts. For 6-8 hours students are surrounded by other humans, they go from class to class, transition from activity to activity. Teachers often prefer learning centers (students sit in a group of 4 facing each other) vs. the old-fashioned lecture hall classroom (all eyes on board). For quiet introverted children, it may be torturous. They like working independently. They don’t like team work. 70% of them are very talented and gifted, but because of their quiet nature, these gifts are often not recognized and children come home disappointed. Therefore, communication between the teacher and the parents of a quiet child is essential. The teacher has the power to create the “orchid blooming” conditions. Teachers should try to create quiet time and quiet spaces, and they should protect silence when students work independently. We have once tested our rather loud and active middle school class for learning preference styles, and to our surprise 80% of the students identified themselves as “learning my best in silence.” What a great piece of information it is to a teacher. Turns out that many of them create light “white noise” in the classroom to quiet rather loud noises (distinctive talk, etc). We now know that for this group of students to work in complete silence is normal, comfortable, and not awkward. It’s their ideal environment.
It’s also important to treat all students fairly, making sure the quiet voice is heard. I say your class is as socially strong as the comfort of your quietest (most introverted) students. You know the opinion of your class (what they think, what they want) only when you heard the softest and the quietest voice.
Interestingly, being quiet is not necessarily being shy. Quiet (introverted children) know a lot and have a lot to say, but they are careful about when they say things and in front of whom they say things. They need time to think about the answer, whereas extraverted children may blurt the first thing that comes to their mind. Introverts are sensitive when their answer may be found wrong; they almost feel guilty or punished. Remember that introverts avoid risk and failure. So introverted children almost need to be taught “ability to fail.” For example, sending them to a coffee shop counter to order a complicated drink and face follow up questions from the barista. That’s a major step for an introverted child. Taking them to crowded birthday parties, but not for 5 hours, but for an hour and a half. Taking them to public meetings (restaurant meetings, family gathering) and giving them an opportunity to leave early if they “don’t like it.” But at least they are making the first step of showing up. Being with many people is draining on introverts because they pay attention to surroundings, to other people’s words, their facial expressions. Extraverted students, on the other hand, respond to rewards, praise, and don’t feel as sensitive when their answers are wrong. They experience “post party blues” when events and celebrations are over. Extraverts are often busy talking and don’t read other people’s facial expressions or even hear their opinions.
There are also some practical tips I can share of what I do in my classroom if I know I have some quiet students. To help an introverted child speak, I would encourage students to listen to my question, and then write an answer on a flash card. Show the flash card with the response. All have an opportunity to think and present an answer in a quiet manner at the same time, but to only one set of eyes.
If students are working on math problems, have a desiring extraverted child work the problem on the board, and encourage entire class to state their solution by raising their hand and have the teacher walking to their desk to check the answer. Many times I had very quiet children exceed my expectations in this activity. Once a child does something right (like solving an equation) in his notebook and you validate his speed and his correctness, it’s time for him/her to try his skill on the board. I would even encourage the student to do the same problem (he knows it’s right). All I want is for him/her to be able to work in front of the group of people, and also the class to acknowledge the work of the student. It takes mini steps, but almost all introverted children can be performing confidently in front of the group.
Doing presentations to a class (speaking to a group, using a Power Point presentation, for example, or a poster) is a challenging task to any student, not just for quiet ones. Sometimes quiet children may use their introvertness to avoid such tasks. They hide behind their shyness. The real world, unfortunately, is not as understanding. When in college, students are expected to present to a group. At work, we are expected to communicate with our co-workers or speak to our customers. Even if you are an independent “work from home” contractor, you are marketing your services to clients and you sell your product to people. With preparation, presentations can be done. We encourage students to pre-write their presentation on flash cards and practice numerous times (practice to a mirror, to a friend, to a parent). There are many public figures (from politicians, to newspaper owners, to professors, to actors) who self-identify as introverts. In their interviews they point out that they had to teach themselves essential people’s skills because of so many things they wanted to accomplish in life. I think this is the key to understanding of who quiet people are. An introverted student can be bored in class because he has six other ideas, topics, projects happening in his head. An introvert is obsessing about a project he is passionate about (and does not have the need to tell everyone about it). And what I see, sadly, is that kids self-identify themselves as quiet, shy, introverts, liking to sit in their room. But ladies and gentlemen, what does the child do in his room? What are his “things he wants to accomplish in life”? Is he working on a painting? Is he reading a book? Is he writing and illustrating a book? Is he building a city? Is he designing and making clothes? Does he really have six great ideas happening in his head during class? Is he an “orchid ready to bloom”? Again, sadly, this is often not the case. The reality is that many of our kids sit in their rooms playing video games or phone games. This does not make them introverts. This makes them lazy to do anything, including communicating with others.
I would like to finish this post by inviting you to research the world of introverts. The literature, ted talks, podcasts are abundant when it comes to this subject. To hear introverted students, accomplished professionals, writers, speakers reflect on their quiet mind is refreshing. Their speech is eloquent and their ideas are profound. They are original and brilliant. They just don’t like to be the center of attention in the group. It’s all about preferences. But I am sure, when the time comes to speak up for justice, to state an opinion, to declare a position, introverts are able to do it thoughtfully and strongly. And that’s my wish for every student, regardless of his temperament.
Hanna Grishkevich Ph.D.
Spring Mountain Christian Academy