Supporting Highly Sensitive Children in the Education System
I am an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) and I did not enjoy school. At all.
This is a really interesting reflection for me as I am someone who loves to read, write and learn about new things. When I was at school I did as I was told, got my head down and just got through the best I could. I was one of those children who, from a teacher's perspective was in the 'murky middle' - not under achieving, or over achieving, just okay. Boring perhaps. Invisible.
This in fact was quite alright with me for the most part. I didn't want to be seen. I wanted to just fade into everything and not draw attention. This wasn't because I was shy, although it was a label I was often given. I did, in fact have a lot that I wanted to share and express. The problem for me was that school was so hideously overwhelming. This is often the case for HSPs. It quite simply can be too much, on many fronts. This may feel familiar to you, dear reader. Perhaps you recall school being a painful time? Maybe you see the same thing happening for your children too?
How Can School be Overwhelming for HSPs?
This list is not exclusive and are based on my personal reflections as an HSP myself, a mother of two HSPs and my 10 years spent teaching in Primary Schools. These are just some of the ways in which school can contribute to HSC feeling overwhelmed and stressed out.
An HSPs senses can be come overstimulated through high levels of noise, movement, busy wall displays, hideous strip lighting, wide varieties of smells & textures, not to mention uncomfortable uniform. In order to learn well, HSC need to be comfortable and have just enough sensory stimulation.
The fast pace of the school day can leave deep thinkers feeling frazzled. HSPs process more deeply, so they need more thinking time.
Lots of people in one place, means lots of opportunities for HSPs to absorb and become affected by other people's feelings. They often work better alone, or in pairs. Big groups can overwhelm.
Friendship groups can be super intense. Due to the high level of empathy and the depth of feeling that comes along with the HS trait, boundaries can be blurred and the ups and downs of any friendship can impact hard. HSC cannot simply grow a 'thicker skin'. Harsh words hurt deep.
Target driven culture, pushes the conscientious nature of the HSP into perfectionism - which is a one-way road to anxiety. HS kids need an open learning environment, where sharing is encouraged and personal growth at your own rate is celebrated.
When I was at school I was frequently told by teachers that I was 'too serious' and needed to (cue eye roll) 'lighten up', but how do you do this when you think and feel so deeply and when the whole school experience is so very stressful? How can you be care-free and easy going when your nervous system is on hyper alert from the sound of the first school bell to the last?
Early Experiences Shape Us
Being told often that I needed to become something that I wasn't had the effect of invalidating my feelings, intuition and own experience of the world. This is not okay. It has taken me years to understand myself better and re-connect back to my true self. This journey is ongoing. When our societal systems invalidate children in this way and try to shoe-horn them into badly misshapen boxes, they are damaging these sensitive souls AND preventing their much needed talents from being gifted to the world. By telling them 'you're too sensitive', or that they need to 'toughen up', we are effectively saying; 'Don't be you, pretend to be somethings else - what you are is not good enough'.
It sickens me when I think of this. Even worse is that this is still happening now. And not just in schools.
Thomas Boyce M.D. has shown in his research the interesting finding that for those who are highly sensitive, being in a high stress environment meant they were much more likely to develop physical and mental health problems, compared their less sensitive peers. However, what is most intriguing is that in calm environments HSPs had much better health than the less sensitive. The crux is this - when highly sensitive children are raised in a nurturing, supportive environment they actually thrive - often doing better than average. Yet when they experience high stress, they are more likely than average to go under. I can completely testify to the truth of this. My own experience of leaving the high stress job of classroom teaching and moving into something more in keeping with my own values, with a better work-life balance has allowed my physical and mental health to thrive. In addition, I am relaxed and comfortable enough to create and express in a manner that suits me.
How Can We Support Highly Sensitive Children?
If you are a teacher, or work with children in schools, you are battling with many demands on your time - I know, I have been there. BUT, when considering the different groups of children in your class/school, take a moment to consider the following:
* Some kids are just born loud. That's their style of learning and expressing. But this is ALWAYS at the expense of us at the sensitive end of the scale. Highly sensitive children need quiet time, but not just for concentrating on school work. Playtimes might also be a time for quiet. A loud, busy playground may be the last thing they need after a stimulating lesson.
* A bright, colourful classroom can be beautiful to look at but at best can be a distraction and at worst completely overwhelming. When thinking about the learning environment, think 'just enough' stimulation.
*PLEASE do not sit the quiet HS kid next to the one who you think we can be a 'calming influence' for. The ones with the loudest voices are not the only ones who need thinking about.
*Please do not give us time restricted tasks. As a general rule, HS kids will either do worse than they would anyway, or they will be placed under unnecessary stress which is not good for a developing nervous system. HSC need time. Give them this and they will come back with absolute, solid pure gold!
* 'Group work' can be stressful, overwhelming and a complete dampener on the creative process. If groups must be used, consider the personalities, assign roles and support as much as you can.
* HSPs are deep people. They think in detail about everything. Get to know these children and take time to get to know their background. Some may have a super supportive home life, but others may be struggling with stresses at home too. If the latter is the case, let school be a solace, not a source of more stress.
* Never critique children for being sensitive. An upset child may be an inconvenience to the timetable of a school day, but that timetable is of no importance if that child is left scarred from big feelings that they do not know what to do with. Recognise their feelings, allow them space to feel them and let them know that you are there for them. Be grateful that they shared those feelings with you.
If you are a parent of highly sensitive child, there are lots of things you can do to support your child at home. While the rest of the world begins to understand this trait.
First - ask whether you are highly sensitive yourself. This will impact how you parent your child. If you are also an HSP, you must practice self-care as a priority. I cannot say this loudly enough. TAKE OYOUR SELF CARE SERIOUSLY! Your child will learn from you how to take care of themselves. If you are overwhelmed, stressed and burnt out most of the time you will not be at your best and will not be able to support your child/children in the way you know you'd like to. And then you will likely start beating yourself up about it, which is just no fun! If you are not an HSP, read all you can on the topic so you can understand your child through this lens.
The trait of high sensitivity is still relatively unknown in the UK. Awareness is growing, but that needs to pick up pace. It can be helpful to have discussions about this trait with your child's teacher and other family members.
However, be careful to not use the term 'Highly sensitive' to put your child in a box. Remember that this is a trait shared by 15-20% of the population and within that, every single one of those people are a unique expression of life. This trait is a NORMAL and INNATE trait. The only reason we need to support HSPs right now is because our society currently disadvantages them. This is not the case worldwide - in other cultures it is treasured and thought of as the gift that it is.
At home, talk about your child's super powers positively. We talk about my son's hearing at his 'spidey sense' for example. In fact, being in a complete HSP household we talk about our different 'spidey senses' and how useful they are. Explain that because these senses are so powerful, they need more time to recharge them.
Provide your child with structured calm time. I would suggest at least an hour in the evening of time without anything stimulating. In other words, time without things such as clubs, screens of any kind, even really exciting stories that can overstimulate. My children enjoy baths, relaxing music, massage, yoga style stretches, alone time and just snuggling up in really comfy blankets. We don't always need to chat either. My eldest (9) is now getting quite good at knowing when he needs some down time, but my youngest (6) needs me to notice for him - so keep your spidey senses alert for your children who may not yet realise when they have had enough.
Let your child cry. Crying is a release of emotion and should never be shamed. Be careful about those male stereotypes seeping into your language - 'man up', 'brave soldier', etc. The world is full enough with the message that boys shouldn't cry or be sensitive, at the very least let home be a place where feelings can be felt.
Teach your child to understand his/her highly sensitive body. Teach them to tune in and to breathe well. It is a lifelong skill that I did not learn properly until my 20s. Teach them this now and they will always have something to use when times get tough.
The world will not change overnight and neither will the way we teach and raise our children. However, the more our awareness and understanding grows the better equipped we shall all be to create the kind of environment where all children, all people can thrive. As Maya Angelou says;
"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better"