Supporting Introverted Students with Autonomy, Belonging, and Competence

Bridget Gwinnett (January 2022)

As the school counselor, I am often called in when teachers are concerned about students who appear to be alone, unengaged, and/or depressed. Parents reach out for help for their anxious kids when report card comments have a theme of “I would like to see an increase in your participation in class discussions.” When I learn more about those children, I find that many of them are not depressed or anxious. They are introverts.

As a culture, we are increasingly aware of introversion as a personality trait. Yet I am regularly reminded of our tendency to view the world through extroverted lenses, rewarding social and outgoing behaviors. Misconceptions about introversion create barriers for kids that remove opportunities to show us just how much they can contribute.

Carl Jung, an early personality theorist, described introversion as “inwardly directed psychic energy,” while extroverts “engage with external stimuli.” So when in group situations, people who are introverts tend to be more quiet and introspective, more skeptical and reserved. After navigating those situations, like a party or a classroom discussion, introverts need time and space to gather their energies. This combination of behaviors can appear to extroverts as depressed, anxious, or weird. Truth is: introversion and extroversion are on a continuum and most of us have a little bit of both traits. We just tend to lean more toward one.

For introverts to experience autonomy, belonging, and competence, we should be intentional about providing time to think, quiet space, and an opportunity to dig deep when learning new information. An introvert’s brain is easily stimulated, reacting to their environment. Most classrooms are set up with extroverts in mind, but educators have simple fixes available to our routines that will support introverted students AND benefit extroverted students as well. It starts with understanding the need for time (and downtime) that is essential for introverted kiddos.

Introverts process their internal thoughts and feelings before responding to a question or prompt. Without time for that processing, an introvert will feel anxious. If your classroom expectation includes participation in discussions or responding to posed questions, reach out to the students you don’t normally hear from (likely your introverts) and discuss ways to participate that allow for thinking time.

Some students are anxious of being called on to answer a question. They desire to answer questions, but the anxiety of answering without time to think is overwhelming. Having students collaborate with you in planning ways to make participation more accessible will help support the autonomy they need. Ensure that you call on them when they raise a hand; the success helps foster a sense of competence. And utilize technology alternatives that allow students to contribute to an online discussion forum.

Facilitating participation might also look like giving students the time to discuss an idea with a partner before sharing it with the larger group. With this one-on-one practice, some students will feel more comfortable sharing it with the class. It’s the “think-pair-share” concept.  Assigning a small group or one-on-ones will take the pressure off introverted students to find a partner or group while at the same time, building the community of your classroom. It gives your extroverted students what they need: stimulation, and your introverted students what they need: structure and time.

Quiet working time in a classroom will provide introverts time to recharge from the noise and stimulation. In my class, I offer a break in the middle of our 75-minute period. My students are given a 5-minute reflection prompt based on the material we’ve covered, followed by the opportunity to go outside or walk the halls for another 5 minutes. My extroverted students love it, too. In middle and lower schools, quiet time for reading, puzzles, or coloring is just what introverts need in pockets throughout the day.

You’ve probably heard the buzz around “flow,” but maybe you haven’t heard of the increase in intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy associated with flow (Hektner & Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Flow is a mental state, fully involved and fully enjoying the process of an activity; being “in the zone.” Students are more likely to experience flow when given the time and freedom to choose the topics they would like to dig deep and learn more about, especially when the activity is new and appropriately challenging. We are fostering their autonomy as learners and introverted students will flourish.

Underlying these practices is the sense of belonging introverted students will feel when we take the time to understand and get to know how to best serve them. Connect with your introverts; be even more intentional about building a relationship with students who are more reserved. It can start with individual time to check for understanding and grow from there.

As an extrovert, I’ve had to recognize my privilege in a world that rewards my personality style. As the wife and mother to four very differently introverted people, I have learned how to recognize the benefits of this trait. I spend more time in silence to find balance and I have more appreciation for that “thinking time” introverts need.

Hektner, J.M., Csikszentmihalyi, M., (1996). A Longitudinal Exploration of Flow and Intrinsic Motivation in Adolescents.