What Sensitive Students Need From Their Teachers

A sensitive student with their teacher

Teachers who are patient, kind, and enthusiastic about helping a student learn are vital to a sensitive student’s success.

My days of nervously walking into a classroom for the first day of school passed many moons ago. Yet every year at the start of a new school year for my daughters, I experience those same first-day jitters I felt so long ago. As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I feel such empathy for my children’s anxiety that it often triggers anxious feelings of my own.

Both of my daughters are sensitive students who face many of the same struggles that other sensitive students face inside the classroom. Events such as making new friends, adapting to new environments, and marrying their learning styles to the teaching methods of new teachers are just a few examples of anxiety-inducing situations for students. 

As sensitive children, the heaviness of these events is increased as they set forth to navigate new, unknown territory while simultaneously trying to please everyone, do everything perfectly, help people understand that their quiet nature does not mean they lack intelligence, and still find time to regroup and recharge from all of the school day stimuli. 

Teachers can be extremely instrumental in helping sensitive students deal with these anxiety-filled situations. Teachers are tasked with helping to contribute to the overall learning experience of children. Sensitive students rely on their teachers to help provide them with an environment conducive to success. Sensitive students thrive under the tutelage of teachers who vary their critiquing methods, understand their “people-pleasing” nature, demonstrate their humanity, and exhibit grace.

While all students need certain things from their teachers, sensitive students need certain things in particular — here are four of them. 

4 Things Sensitive Students Need From Teachers

1. They need teachers to help them discover how they best receive feedback and critique.

During my freshman year of high school, I was selected to participate in a program for gifted students. The class was unlike any class I’d ever taken before. Each student was encouraged to curate their own learning experience and to share their creativity and learning styles with their peers. 

During this time, I learned the value of a teacher understanding the individuality of students. I grew to value teachers who deliberately worked to provide a safe and effective learning space for sensitive students like myself. I discovered that my sensitive mind received feedback or critique best through gentle redirection, which encouraged me to continue to explore creative and ingenuitive learning opportunities.  

To encourage continued creativity and exploration, Sari O’Bryan, an orchestra teacher in Maryland, utilizes a “criticism sandwich” when critiquing sensitive students. O’Bryan, who also identifies as an HSP, has found that when dealing with her sensitive students, offering a compliment before a critique works best, as sensitive students are extremely affected by criticism. She “sandwiches” negative comments between positive reinforcers in order to redirect sensitive students away from the negative and toward what makes them feel better about their performance.

Sensitive students need teachers to utilize critiquing methods in which the correction is focused on a sensitive child’s work and not on the child. Taking the time to understand an individual’s needs enhances the student/teacher relationship and enables a teacher to more effectively help the lives of their sensitive students. 

2. They need teachers to understand that they are people-pleasers and perfectionists.

As a teacher explores the best way to critique sensitive learners, they may discover another characteristic of sensitive students: that they are people-pleasers. Sensitive students are driven by the need to be appreciated and are focused on other people and their needs. They seek good grades, and will attempt to adapt to a teacher’s preferences, even if it means deserting their own needs. Essentially, they aspire to be the perfect student.   

My youngest daughter is very smart, extremely modest, and does not recognize her talent. Also a sensitive student, she is very analytical. Some of her former teachers have commented on her detailed classroom performance and her need for perfection. In fact, a past math teacher was hesitant to recommend her for an honors level course, fearing that her quest for perfectionism would cause her too much stress. 

My husband and I have become her advocates, and we continue to teach her how to advocate for herself. We gently guide her as we explain how her people-pleasing nature is a part of her sensitive makeup. For us, it is important that she knows that she is not flawed in her makeup and that her sensitivity is a superpower.

Sensitive children need teachers who encourage them to embrace their phenomenal makeup. They need teachers to understand that the extra three pages of work were done to make sure they completed each detail of a rubric, not to cause additional work to grade for the teacher. They need their teachers to understand that when they ask an abundance of questions, they are not trying to be annoying, but rather, trying to ensure that they don’t make a mistake. 

Teachers who learn to attribute a sensitive student’s behavior to their desire to please them — and who don’t make them feel small or insignificant — encourage the sensitive student’s intellectual and social growth both in and out of the classroom. These teachers allow sensitive students the opportunity to celebrate themselves in lieu of lamenting over their intrinsic makeup. 

3. They need to see that teachers are perfectly imperfect human beings, too. 

Albert Einstein said, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” For sensitive students, the issue is not one of effort. In fact, they often try too hard. Striving for perfection, sensitive students are harder on themselves than they are on others, and they often don’t realize that people around them are making mistakes, too, according to Amanda van Mulligen, who has sensitive children herself. She says a sensitive child who is afraid to fail may doubt their abilities, take longer to complete assignments, or even experience tears or meltdowns. These behaviors can be detrimental to classroom performance.

One way a teacher can make a child feel safe to fail is by embracing their own mistakes, van Mulligen says. A teacher’s willingness to share mistakes that they’ve made, to laugh about those mistakes, and to demonstrate how those mistakes did not define who they were provides a safe space for navigating through mishaps. 

According to Megan Wilson, an AP Math teacher from Atlanta, Georgia, one of the most important tools she uses to connect to her students is allowing them the opportunity to see her as more than just their teacher. Wilson has found that when dealing with her sensitive students, her “big three” are consistency, communication, and intentional interaction. Wilson takes a genuine interest in her students outside of the classroom by attending their sporting events, drama performances, and various competitions. She often attends these events with her husband and triplets so that students are able to see the human side of her, away from the whiteboards in the classroom.

A sensitive learner herself, Wilson understands the importance of feeling supported by teachers. Attending extracurricular events, volunteering for opportunities outside of the classroom to work with sensitive children, and continuing to develop and evolve her teaching strategies to fit a broad spectrum of learners allows her students to recognize that her dedication to their success extends beyond the walls of the classroom. Sensitive learners need teachers who are willing to remove their “teacher” hat and allow them to view them as supporters and life coaches outside of the school building.

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4. They need teachers to understand that they help to determine whether a learning experience is positive or negative. 

The time teachers spend in, and out, of the classroom preparing lessons proves their dedication to their students. Tailoring lessons to 25-30 different personalities is a challenge, yet they work incessantly to succeed. Teachers like Ronald Blair, Jr., Ed.D, who teaches Special Education in Virginia, recognizes the complexity of considering the personalities and learning styles of sensitive students when crafting lesson plans.   

Recognizing that teachers are one of the biggest influences in a child’s life, Blair has seen firsthand how interactions with educators help to determine whether an educational experience is positive or negative. He’s seen instances where an amazing science teacher lights the fire in a student to pursue a career in chemistry as an adult, or where an outstanding art teacher helps a student learn to appreciate the beauty of art and ignites their creative fire.

Conversely, a teacher who is unavailable, unwilling to hear students out, and unwilling to extend any grace toward students can have a negative impact on a student — especially more sensitive ones.

As was the case with my oldest daughter’s high school biology teacher. 

My sensitive daughter had always taken a keen interest in science, so she (and I) thought biology would be a pleasant experience. We were wrong. Instead of feeling as though her course questions were welcome and her confusion on certain topics was typical, she began to feel as though she was a hindrance to the teacher’s time. Often, when she would ask questions about assignments in class, she would be called out or embarrassed in front of her classmates. In time, this caused her to feel less than competent in the class. She began to doubt her abilities, and she lost trust in her teacher. Her interest in science, as a whole, began to wane. 

The following year, she entered chemistry with a dismal outlook. After a few months, however, this view began to change. Her chemistry teacher took time with her when she had questions, explaining atoms and elements using something that interested her: soccer balls and soccer terms. This teacher’s demonstration of patience and extensions of grace gained her trust and allowed her to know that her sensitive needs were important. She began to thrive in the classroom. Teachers who are patient, kind, and enthusiastic about helping a student learn are vital to a sensitive student’s success.

On average, about 15 percent of a person’s life is spent in school. Teachers are one of the world’s most formidable influences in the lives of the children they teach. Understanding the needs of sensitive students helps to enhance the teacher/student relationship and enables the sensitive student the chance to thrive both in and out of the classroom. Working together with their sensitive students to understand their needs, teachers can help to provide a positive educational experience to be enjoyed by the student and teacher alike. 

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