In my second year of teaching preschool, we got a new student. Craig was tiny, blonde and extremely well-spoken for someone barely three years of age - that is, when we could get him to speak. Craig was so quiet that he was easy to miss. He spent most of his time watching to see what the rest of the class would do before finding his own place, which was usually at the edge of the action. He rarely asked for help, instead struggling by himself - sometimes to tears - before one of us would see his frustrated efforts.
Our classroom policies were built on helping our kids be part of a larger community – both in the small family structure of our room and in the bigger neighborhood of the school. We focused on cooperative play, working together to reach common goals and learning to interact productively. We counted kids as successful when they were able to make friends, form partnerships, work through conflicts and stretch their sociability. And by those standards Craig – an otherwise bright, happy, loving child – wasn't very successful. His parents were worried. Why wouldn't Craig join in? Would he ever find his place in the classroom?
Shy or Outgoing? Introverted or Extraverted?
Children like Craig are introverts. That's the name for those kids who are happier playing on the sidelines, who are easily overwhelmed by the chaos of big muscle play, or who seek out quiet spaces throughout the day. They aren't necessarily less mature than their more forthcoming classmates; they're just the kind of people who recharge by being alone.
Most of us fall on a continuum between introversion and extraversion (although most folks lean to the extraverted end). But kids like Craig can run to extremes.
Extraverts share the following characteristics in varying degrees:
Chatterboxes: An extravert loves to tell you everything! From the dreams they had the night before to the sandwich they're going to have for lunch. The most extreme extravert in your class probably needs to be reminded to be quiet during story time – every story time!
Love group play: Extraverts like working with others best. They have the most fun when they're with friends and will often try to engage others even in solitary activities, for example leaning over to talk to a friend about the picture she's painting instead of focusing on her own art.
Lots of movement: The most extraverted kids dance and twirl their way through the day. They fidget when it's time to sit still and burst onto the playground.
Need and want your approval: Because they're so externally focused, your opinion matters. They eat up praise and beg for more.
Extraverts often dominate the group, especially the strong extraverts. Many of them are natural-born leaders and their activity can dictate the course of the class.
Introverts, like Craig, may slip under the radar. Some characteristics of introverts include:
Long attention span: Most introverts can spend a long time on an activity if they're left alone to do it. They lose themselves in creative or artistic play.
Highly sensitive: While extraverts can often bounce from disruption, introverts may have a harder time dealing with up-ended schedules or unhappy friends. Sometimes they dwell on worries and fears.
Slow to start: Introverts can't be cajoled and pull back if pushed. They need patience and room to consider their options when faced with new experiences.
Love individual play: Introverts need time by themselves or else they tend to disintegrate into tears or tantrums. When the class is at its busiest, you'll find them in the book corner, hiding behind coats by the cubbies or calmly sitting under the snack table.
Daydreamy: Introverts who can't get away from the group will retreat emotionally. These introverts are the kids staring out the van window on field trips or who have trouble following directions because they're off in their own little fantasylands.
Introverted Kids in Extraverted Classrooms
Most of the world – our classrooms included – is built for extraverts. It makes sense since most of us tend to lean toward the extraverted end of the scale. We prize skills like making friends, taking the lead, managing emotions and working effectively in teams. Children like Craig may look immature because they aren't building the kinds of social relationships our curriculums encourage but they have other gifts. Introverts are good problem-solvers and their sensitive understanding makes them strong and loyal friends.
Classrooms can become friendlier for our shy and introverted students with these tips:
Create cozy places: Introverts will be more successful in groups if they have room to recharge alone. Help them find a special place where they can look at books or cuddle with a toy without being disturbed. Even small classrooms can be introvert-friendly with a little effort.
Have patience: It can be very hard to deal with a nervous introvert facing a new event when fifteen other kids can't wait to get going. Instead of spending your time cajoling the reluctant child, let him observe while you help the other children get started.
Change your expectations: Success for an introvert may mean one special friend. Because their natural place is on the sidelines, an introvert may get as much pleasure out of watching an activity as another child would have participating.
Craig found help in an understanding teacher who was an introvert herself. Because she remembered her own school experiences, she could appreciate how overwhelmed Craig sometimes felt in the classroom and made sure he had time and space to get his bearings during transitions and busier activities. She helped the other teachers understand his unique needs and celebrate his special strengths. His sensitivity made him a natural to help younger students and being able to work one-on-one as a mentor bolstered his confidence.
As we learned to work with Craig, his personality blossomed. While he would never be out-going, his shyness dissipated. He learned to behave warmly to new people and we learned to give him extra time to warm up! We were also able to help Craig's parents understand that his cautious socializing was thoughtful and mature – just quieter than they expected having already raised an outgoing big sister.
It wasn't Craig that was having trouble being successful – it was our standards of success that needed to be changed. Readjusting our expectations helped us craft a better environment for Craig and allowed us to see the many gifts he quietly brought to our small community.
Dawn Friedman, a former preschool teacher, lives in Columbus OH. Her work has appeared in Parenting, Yoga Journal and Salon.