It’s back to school for us over here and for many people around the world. While I have to admit it’s a relief the long summer break is finally over, my worry suddenly seems to be overshadowing my contentment. Instead of enjoying the peace and quiet I’ve been craving for the past thousand weeks, I find myself drowning in the fear that this school year won’t go the way we desperately want it to.
There was a time when our highly sensitive child detested being around people, especially little ones, and so by association school was a miserable place for him to be in. However, as he got older and matured, and with the loving support of some of the incredible teachers he’s had, school has become something he actually looks forward to.
From my own experience and from the stories I hear from parents on an almost daily basis, I can say with rock-solid confidence that a teacher can either make or break a child. A teacher who fails to cater to her/his students’ individual needs and cannot accept the simple fact that there is no “one size fits all” solution can destroy a child’s entire academic career. A great teacher, on the other hand, one who devotes her(him)self to understanding every child, encouraging each one to be the best they can be, that teacher can give a child wings to fly.
In other words, a teacher can make the whole difference.
So, on the first week of this new school year, I want to call out to the teachers of the world and ask them to hear my plea as the mother of a highly sensitive child. We all want the year to go well, and I believe most of us are willing to work together with you to make that happen.
Dear teacher, when things get rough, and we all know they will, I lovingly ask that you remember this…
(1) You will have highly sensitive children in your class. With 2 out of 10 people having the high sensitivity trait, chances are you will have at least one child in your class who is highly sensitive. Depending on the child’s age, temperament, classroom, and many more factors, this child might be the one who prefers to sit in a corner alone, or to read instead of play, or not put up their hand even if they have the answers. These kids may be too kind and gentle for their own good sometimes. They may get emotional faster than most and even cry when it may not seem there’s anything to cry about. Please look out for them. They are there. And they need you.
(2) Please understand what high sensitivity is. I don’t mean this in a condecending way at all. The thing is though, with sensitive children, getting it right with them from the beginning can help them live a more care-free kind of childhood and grow into happy, confident adults. On the other hand, getting it wrong can set them up for failure and misery later on which even years of expensive therapy may not fix. There are plenty of resources to help, and if you’re short on time, there are quick, comprehensive guides and even a documentary that will give you a very good summary in an hour or less.
(3) Give them time and space. They’ll come around. It is true that high sensitivity is not something you grow out of, but it is something you learn to live with. The more you understand yourself and your environment, the better control you gain over your emotions. Simply put, if you let your sensitive children be, even if it means they’re missing out on classroom activities, they will eventually be ready to join you. And they’ll most like do it very well.
(4) Show them you understand. This one’s hard because it can be frustrating having to accommodate one child’s needs while you have twenty others (or more!) to tend to. Sensitive children are so sensitive that they can sense your frustration and disappointment. Please be patient with them. Not only will your support and understanding not go unnoticed, but it will go a long way towards building their confidence and self-esteem. Every time you let them know it’s okay, you get it, they grow a little more. Nothing can be worse than feeling alone and weird at school.
(5) Use gentleness in your approach. Highly sensitive children respond very well to a positive and gentle approach to learning. Similarly, a tougher attitude involving negative feedback or consequences can have a detrimental effect on a sensitive child. The reason for this is sensitive children are very aware of themselves and their performance and tend to be hardest on themselves. The last thing they need is someone else to tell them they’ve failed. That’s not to say however that feedback should not be given; on the contrary. It’s more about the delivery and the balance between “firm” and “nurturing”. (I’m still working on that one myself.)
(6) Just because their hands don’t go up doesn’t mean they don’t have the answers. The fact is, most highly sensitive children detest the spotlight and avoid it whenever possible. Unlike more outgoing children who enjoy attention and praise, a sensitive child can be satisfied with simply knowing the answers to your questions and keeping that knowledge to him or herself. Our son has had teachers who knew when to call on him and when to leave him alone; thanks to their gentle and intuitive approach, those teachers really helped him to work on his assertiveness and comfort with speaking in front of a group.
(7) Yelling does not help. Smiling does. The general atmosphere of the class can greatly affect how a sensitive child feels at the end of a school day and their willingness to go back. I remember teachers who were not necessarily mean, but were loud and ‘frowny’ by nature. A lot of students thought they were hilarious, but other students, including myself, felt threatened and simply could not function in that teacher’s classroom, even though we weren’t personally targeted. Gentle, ‘smiley’ teachers, on the other hand, can create the ideal ambiance in which a more sensitive, more creative child can flourish.
(8) They need you to notice things, even outside the classroom. School is not just about the classroom. It’s also about what happens outside the classroom that can affect children. Outside, teachers have less visibility and control. And we all know that a lot can happen during recess and lunch breaks. It’s impossible to know what’s going on with every student at all times, but do you notice changes in mood or attitude after breaks? Does your student often seem upset and absent-minded after recess? Then chances are something’s going on and they need you to know. However, many sensitive kids won’t always seek your help, and a lot of the time it’s because they don’t want to “tell” on their friends. So maybe a private, friendly discussion is the best way to get them to open up.
On a final note, I just want to say that I am convinced teachers have magical super powers. The effects they have on their students can last forever. They can ensure order in a chaotic environment; they can influence decisions and change minds; they can give their children the strength to do things they never thought they could. Teaching children might just be the most important job there is, and it takes a super human to do it well.
So thank you, teachers of the world, for doing something not everyone can. Thank you for being there for our children.
Here’s where you can find the great resources mentioned in this post:
The Highly Sensitive Child by Dr Elaine Aron
Understanding the Highly Sensitive Child by Jamie Williamson
Sensitive, The Untold Story – A Documentary based on the work of Dr Elaine Aron