Sensitive kids need the “mama bear” approach — just enough stimulation, but not too much.
I am a highly sensitive person (HSP), 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, focused, and got through the best I could. I was one of those children who, from a teacher’s perspective, was in the “murky middle” — not underachieving, or overachieving, just okay. Perhaps even invisible.
This was actually 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 highly sensitive children (HSC), too?
How School Can Be Overload for Highly Sensitive People
This list is not exclusive and is based on my personal reflections as an HSP myself, a mother of two highly sensitive children, and my 10 years spent teaching in elementary schools. These are just some of the ways in which school can contribute to sensitive children feeling overwhelmed and stressed out.
- Overstimulation is everywhere, from the lighting to the nonstop kids’ voices. An HSP’s senses can become overstimulated through high levels of noise, movement, colorful wall displays, hideous (and overbearing) strip lighting, and a wide variety of smells (also known as chemical sensitivity) and textures, not to mention uncomfortable (often itchy) uniforms. In order to learn well, highly sensitive children need to be comfortable and have just enough sensory stimulation, not too much.
- The fast pace of the school day can leave deep thinkers feeling frazzled. HSPs process more deeply, so they need more thinking time. Plus, lots of people in one place means lots of opportunities for HSPs to absorb and become affected by other people’s feelings even more so than usual. And sensitive kids often work better alone or in pairs. Big groups can be overwhelming, as can friendship groups. Due to the high level of empathy and the depth of feeling that comes along with the high-sensitivity trait, boundaries can be blurred and the ups and downs of any friendship can greatly impact highly sensitive children. They cannot simply grow a “thicker skin,” as harsh words hurt — and HSPs react strongly to criticism, no matter what their age.
- Target-driven culture pushes the conscientious nature of HSPs into perfectionism mode, which is a one-way road to anxiety. Highly sensitive kids need an open learning environment, where sharing is encouraged and personal growth (at your own pace) is celebrated. When I was in 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 carefree and easygoing when your nervous system is on hyper alert from the sound of the first school bell to the last?
Early Childhood Experiences Shape HSPs as Adults
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 as an HSP and reconnect back to my true self. This journey is ongoing.
When our societal systems invalidate children in this way and try to shoehorn 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 somebody else — what you are is not good enough.”
It sickens me when I think about this. Even worse is that this is still happening now. And not just in schools.
In his research, Thomas Boyc, M.D., found 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 vs. 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 not thrive. 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 myself, in a manner that better suits me.
How Can Teachers 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’ve been there. But, when considering the different groups of children in your class/school, take a moment to think about the following.
- Highly sensitive children need quiet time. Some kids are just born loud — that’s their style of learning and expressing themselves. But this is always at the expense of those of us on the sensitive side of the scale. Highly sensitive children need quiet time, but not just for concentrating on school work. Playtime might also be a time for quiet since a loud, busy playground may be the last thing they need after a stimulating lesson.
- A bright, colorful classroom can be beautiful to look at… but can be sensory overload for highly sensitive children. When thinking about the learning environment, think “just enough” stimulation vs. overstimulation.
- Please do not sit the quiet sensitive child next to the one who you think they can be a “calming influence” for. The ones with the loudest voices are not the only ones who need to be considered.
- Please be aware that they don’t do best with time-restricted tasks. As a general rule, highly sensitive kids probably won’t do well with time-restricted tasks, just like we HSP adults don’t like busy schedules or being rushed either. Unnecessary stress is not good for our highly sensitive nervous system.
- Rethink group projects. “Group work” can be stressful, overwhelming, and can easily dampen the creative process. If groups must be used, consider everyone’s personalities, assign roles, and support the kids — especially those who may be struggling — as much as you can.
- Get to know the highly sensitive children in your classroom, like really get to know them. HSPs are deep people — they think in detail about everything. Get to know HSC and take time to get to know their background. Some may have a super supportive home life, but others may be struggling with stress at home. If the latter is the case, let school be a solace, not a source of more stress.
- Never critique children for being sensitive – and never say the dreaded “You’re too 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. Recognize 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.
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How Can Parents Support Highly Sensitive Children?
If you are a parent of a highly sensitive child, there are lots of things you can do to support your child at home (even if society still struggles with understanding our sensitivity trait).
- Figure out if you are highly sensitive yourself, for 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 your self-care seriously! Your child will then learn how to take care of themselves. If you are overwhelmed, stressed, and burned 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 no fun! If you are not an HSP, read all you can on the topic so you can understand your child through this lens.
- Talk to others (teachers, family members, etc.) about what it means to be a highly sensitive person/child. Unfortunately, the trait of high sensitivity is still relatively unknown — and often not understood — in society. Awareness is growing, but it needs to pick up the pace. That’s why 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 — 20 to 30 percent of people are HSPs, and within that, every single one of those people are a unique expression of life. This trait is normal and innate. The reason we need to support HSPs right now is because society currently doesn’t more often than not.
- At home, talk about your highly sensitive child’s superpowers positively. We talk about my son’s hearing and “Spidey-Sense,” for example. In fact, being in a complete HSP household, we talk about our different Spidey-Senses and how useful they are — from our intuition to reading others’ body language and emotions to the way we feel everything so deeply. Explain to your HSC that, because these senses are so powerful, they need more time to themselves in order to recharge them.
- Provide your child with structured alone time for calm activities. I would suggest at least an hour in the evening without anything stimulating. In other words, time without things such as screens of any kind or really exciting stories that can overstimulate your HSC. (Creating an HSP sanctuary for them can come in handy, too!) 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 (10 years old) is now getting quite good at knowing when he needs some downtime, but my youngest (seven years old) is not as aware, so I usually notice it for him. So keep your Spidey-Senses alert for your children who may not yet realize when they’ve had enough.
- Let your child cry — and that it’s okay to. Crying is a release of emotion and should never be shamed. Be careful about those male stereotypes seeping into your language, too, like “man up,” “brave soldier,” etc. The world is full enough with the message that boys “shouldn’t” be sensitive or cry. At the very least, let home be a place where feelings can be felt.
- Teach your child to understand their highly sensitive body. Teach them to tune in and to breathe well. This will help them calm down when they get overstimulated. (Plus, it’s 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 will all be to create the kind of environment where all children, all people, can thrive. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Thanks, Maya. We certainly will.
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