Why Is Middle School Hard for Introverts? 3 Ways to Empower Them
Once a week I volunteer at my son's middle school and all those old feelings of dread and discomfort come flooding back. I hated middle school when I was a kid and if I were to attend today, with all the wisdom and experience I've gained in the 40 years since, I'd still despise it just as much. That's because I'm an introvert and middle schools don't treat introverts well.
Middle School Is Often Hell for Introverts, But That Can Easily Get Changed
Middle School Is the Kingdom of Extroverts While Introverts Must Adapt and Endure
Middle school marks a shift as the social order starts to take shape. The popular kids seize control, dominating classroom discussions and setting the agenda on what's cool, what's not cool, who's cool, who's not cool. The introverts become “the less popular kids” and get silenced. Their intelligence, thoughtfulness, and compassion get trampled by the extroverts, and they may never feel empowered again.
Some suffer from depression. Some withdrawal. Some turn to drugs and alcohol. Some even commit suicide. A recent report revealed suicide has now replaced car crashes as the leading cause of death among U.S. middle school students. If parents want to help their children through these difficult times, they must understand that middle schools don't do nearly enough to accommodate introverts and they should push to change this.
There are some simple things schools can do to make sure introverts get their voices heard and their needs met. Teachers and administrators should know that one-third to one-half of their students are introverts, and they should receive training on how to present lessons and offer activities that involve and empower them. As it stands now, middle school is the kingdom of extroverts and introverts must adapt and endure, never feeling they belong but not understanding why. Here are 3 ways to empower introverts at middle school:
Middle Schools Aren't Doing a Good Job of Meeting the Needs of Introverts
1. Ask the Question: “What About the Introverts?”
Considering that as many as half of their students are introverts, it only makes sense that teachers and administrators ask this question, but many don't. Instruction gets geared toward extroverts because they are more vocal and visible. When volunteering at my son's middle school, I'm only there for a couple of hours but leave thoroughly depleted. I can't wait to get to the quiet of my car where I can finally decompress. That's because, as an introvert, I'm drained by the all the noise and chatter, the crowded hallways, the packed classrooms, the interruptions, and the lack of order. While extroverts find these experiences invigorating, introverts do not.
An introverted student, going from one high energy class to another, gets exhausted by middle school. They arrive home, go to their rooms, and stay there for hours, unwinding from the day's assault. Their parents may worry about them and wonder why they're isolating. They make think they're depressed but, in most cases, they're just tired and overwhelmed.
In elementary school, most of these kids had only one teacher who fashioned a well-rounded day for them. At middle school, though, this is no longer the case. That's why it's imperative that teachers and administrators ask the question, “What about the introverts?” If they did, they'd remember to include the following in their classes:
quiet time for reading, writing, and reflecting
small group projects (3-5 students) where everyone gets to share her thoughts and opinions without the pressure of talking in front of the entire group
partner learning when students work together in a deep, meaningful way
choice time where students may select a solitary activity
"Wait Time" Is An Effective Way to Get All Students -- Extroverts and Introverts -- Involved in a Classroom Discussion
2. Consistently Enforce "Wait Time."
Many middle school teachers think their students shouldn't have to raise their hands and wait to get called upon like their did in elementary school. They let their students call out answers so the discussion is more invigorating and spontaneous. There's just one problem with this: the same voices get heard again and again while the others go silent. This is especially tragic because the silent voices of the introverts are often the most deliberate, thoughtful, and compassionate ones.
When I was teaching, I experienced how frustrating it is to get overlooked during our weekly faculty meetings. The two teachers in charge were extroverts – fast-talking take-charge women who liked to move the meetings along at warp-speed. They'd present the first item on the agenda and, by the time I had formulated something meaningful to say, they had already moved on to the second, third, and fourth items. It was maddening because I had a lot to contribute but needed more time to think. Unlike extroverts, introverts hesitate to say whatever pops into their heads.
An easy remedy for this problem at middle school is for teachers to consistently use wait time. Wait time is a term used in education that refers to the period between a teacher asking a question and calling on someone to answer. The ideal amount of time experts recommend is between 3 and 7 seconds. This short amount of time gives all students – extroverts and introverts alike – an opportunity to formulate an intelligent response.
For wait time to work, however, middle school teachers must insist that students raise their hands and wait to get called upon each and every time. It's especially helpful if administrators establish this as a school-wide policy so it's consistently used and enforced in all the classrooms. If teachers understand that the policy of raising hands and using wait time is to benefit introverted students, they will most likely get on board.
3. Introduce Extracurricular Activities That Appeal to Introverts.
In her ground-breaking book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain writes about a high school in Silicon Valley that adjusted its extracurricular activities to suit its high percentage of introverted students. Since many teenagers there didn't enjoy the traditional after-school offerings -- football, volleyball, marching band, and cheer-leading – the school added activities that appealed to introverts. Schools once thought introverted students simply didn't want to take part in any extracurricular activities, but that's not the case. They simple want what fits their personalities, strengths, and interests.
Middle schools should follow their lead by offering activities for introverts. They might add a book club, a robotics club, a Minecraft club, a knitting club, or a photography club. They might add solo sports -– cross-country, roller-blading, swimming – that introverts enjoy more than team sports. Non-competitive fitness classes such as yoga, aerobics, and Tai Chi are also popular with introverts as are lessons in musical instruments.
As an introvert, this book helped me immensely to understand myself and others like me – to know I wasn't alone. For most of my life, I wondered why social activities were no fun and left me feeling drained and irritable. After reading this book, I accepted myself in a new, profound way and started to treat myself with more love and compassion. I stopped beating myself up and started giving myself more alone time to decompress and re-charge my battery.
© 2017 Nancy Mitchell