‘When I was young, I had never heard of the terms introvert and extrovert,” says Susan Cain, author and co-founder of Quiet Revolution. “But I wish I’d known about the science and psychology of personality, so I could have understood that what I was experiencing was normal. Understanding at a deep level who you are, and what you need, is so empowering.’
Helping kids understand who they are and encouraging them to connect with what excites and inspires them, while modelling language that enables them to articulate their feelings and needs, gives children freedom to learn without fear. When kids know who they are, they naturally gravitate toward experiences in which learning and fun happen together. Curiosity, creativity and confidence are a natural mindset for kids that feel relaxed in themselves, and who can express themselves clearly.
When kids know who they are, they naturally gravitate toward experiences in which learning and fun happen together.
Not only is it fascinating to observe a child’s personality developing and unfolding as they grow, it is normal, whether you are a parent or an educator, to want to the best for your kids, to strive to create the conditions in which every child can flourish. While it is difficult to generalise – each individual is their own unique expression of mind, body and spirit – an appreciation of different personality, or psychological, types can help guide your parenting and educational decisions so that you respond to children in a way that positively reinforces their strengths, and values their contribution to the world.
Let’s begin by looking at the two basic personality types – extrovert and introvert. Next, we’ll explore the strengths of each and, finally, discover how we can best support both extroverts and introverts in their learning, whether that’s in the classroom, the playground or the playroom.
Psychologist Carl Jung is the most influential proponent of the two personality traits most people are familiar with – extrovert (this is the layman’s spelling, the clinical spelling is extravert) and introvert. In Psychological Types, which provides an overview of these ‘attitudes-types’ from classical through to modern philosophy, Jung describes how extroverts like lots of stimulation, are generally quick to react, and give themselves ‘easily to the world in a form that is pleasing and acceptable.’
Introverts, on the other hand, don’t react any less passionately than extroverts. Rather, their fascination is drawn inwards and their internal life becomes rich and fertile ground for developing ‘fantastic interpretations.’ In this sense, introverts may be mistaken for being slow, often aloof. Yet their ability to digest information and experience gives depth to their understanding where an extrovert’s tends towards breadth.
The desire to understand and make sense of her need for quiet, for the necessary time and space for rest and reflection to thrive in her personal and professional life, inspired Cain to step away from a successful career as a lawyer and dedicate seven years to writing and researching the New York Times Bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
Cain takes Jung’s work and places it in the context of current research, not least the insights of developmental psychologist and Professor Emeritus at Harvard University Jerome Kagan, whose work has explored how introverts and extroverts are wired differently from birth. In a study launched in 1989, Kagan and his colleagues evaluated 500 four-month-old babies and predicted they would be able to tell which would develop introvert and which would develop extrovert personalities based on their reactions to stimuli in a laboratory environment.
About 20 percent of the infants had sensitive nervous systems that reacted strongly to sensory stimulation, and were more likely to be ‘high-reactive’ introverts. At the other end of the scale, 40 percent reacted mildly, if at all, and remained calm and placid. These infants were more likely to be the ‘low-reactive’ extroverts. The other 40 percent fell somewhere in the middle, the potential centroverts.
The introvert infants noticed more, and responded more to the world around them – they became easily overstimulated as a result, and their nervous systems highly aroused. The extroverts were comfortable with high levels of stimulation, which did not disturb their nervous systems to the same degree. They were more comfortable with colour, noise, smell and other sensory excitement.
While there is a complex web of factors that contributes to the overall development of personality, it is nevertheless helpful to know that some kids do better in a quiet environment, others are more comfortable in rowdier, more stimulating situations. Neither biological disposition, as Jung said, is better than the other. Just different.
What’s more, our tendency towards one or the other can change – introverts may become more extrovert, and vice versa, given social and cultural attitudes. ‘We are all born with introversion and extroversion as biological and measurable characteristics,’ says Dr Sylvia Loehken, author of The Power of Personality: How Introverts and Extroverts Can Combine to Amazing Effect.
‘But this is only the beginning of a person: at a specific time at a specific place and with specific people. It is the interaction between natural processes and social and cultural influences that shapes our personality – and therefore our introversion and extroversion as well. Our mentors, models, cultural expectations, the things that people expect of us – all these factors help to determine whether we live ‘from the outside inwards’ or ‘from the inside outwards.’”
What You Can Do: Play to Children’s Strengths
As well as interacting with kids, simply take time to observe and notice how they respond to different people and situations. You are likely already aware of how they interact with others and what they need to help them relax and feel at ease. How then can you support their natural tendencies and help them to be the best version of themselves they can be?
Take a look through the strengths of introverts and extroverts below, and see if there’s any way you could shed new light on certain behaviours. A child who appears ‘quiet’, shy even, may just be taking their time to warm up, exercising their natural caution and linking complex ideas before making a considered contribution to a class or family discussion. A child who’s ‘loud’, always speaking out in class or has lots to say at home, may simply be expressing natural ebullience and enthusiasm for learning and life, in a way that can also enthuse and engage others.
Characteristics of introvert children
- Cautious, like to assess a situation before taking action.
- Mull things over, think before they speak.
- Can concentrate on one thing for an extended period.
- Listen, gather and process information before forming opinion.
- Calm demeanour, prefer less stimulating environments.
- Like to play and learn independently, autonomous.
- May prefer writing and drawing to speaking.
- Able to put themselves in the place of others, possess empathy.
Characteristics of extrovert children
- Risk takers, like to try new things.
- Enthusiastic, engaging.
- Easily adapt to new people and new situations.
- Verbal communicators.
- Think and act quickly.
- Like to interact with others, affectionate.
- Spontaneous, change their minds often.
- Can work with others to find solutions to problems and conflict.
Once you’ve got to know your children better based on their type, there’s one more thing to consider – your own psychological type. This may affect how you see others and unwittingly create bias or preference for those modes of communicating or learning that feels most comfortable for you. As soon as you bring awareness to this, however, it will change the way you relate to introverts and extroverts, for the better.
When planning activities in school or at home how can you accommodate introvert and extrovert learning styles? The main thing to keep in mind is that when activities are fun, where children are allowed to takes risks, celebrate their failures as well as their successes and encouraged to learn through playful exploration and adventure, it’s a win-win situation for everyone. Learning happens best from real people, in person, who are excited about what they are sharing, or teaching. This applies to both introverts and extroverts.
When children are allowed to takes risks, celebrate their failures as well as their successes and encouraged to learn through playful exploration and adventure, it’s a win-win situation for everyone
Yet you can take this a step further and create situations in which you support unique learning styles. ‘Even if we have a lot in common when learning,’ says expert communication coach Dr Loehken, ‘introverts and extroverts learn more easily and enjoy it more if the road to knowledge takes their needs and preferences into account.’
How to Support Unique Learning Styles
Introverts – learning from the inside outwards
1. Present an idea or activity in an engaging way, then allow space for children to get into it in their own time.
2. If a kid is quiet, remember this is necessary for them to process new information.
3. Allow for time to respond to learning through writing and drawing.
4. Go at a steady pace, perhaps slower than you’re used to – avoid too much information and stimuli, too fast.
5. Create a calm classroom or home environment with familiar rhythms to the day.
6. Provide opportunities for kids to work independently.
7. Cultivate an atmosphere of safety and trust, reassure them that making mistakes is ok.
8. Ensure there are opportunities for kids to deepen their learning, providing challenge where and when they need it to break through to the next level of understanding.
For instance, you could introduce a kid to coding with an explanation of what it is and how you can use it to program computers. Then, provide them with materials such as a Cubetto to play with – sit back and watch while they discover how it works for themselves.
To deepen their learning, you might then encourage them to take an online coding course for kids, which they can work through at their own pace. Follow up with a session in which they can write or draw about what they have learned, discuss it in person with them afterwards, positively reinforcing their successes, and asking them what they discovered during the process.
Extroverts – learning from the outside inwards
1. Stimulate their senses – incorporate touch, smell and taste as well as hearing and sight.
2. If a kid likes to talk, allow them to – talking things through is how they work things out.
3. Keep them engaged with a variety of learning formats at a dynamic pace, allow them to move on whenever they appear restless and ready.
4. Create opportunities for active problem-solving.
5. Incorporate group work.
6. Limit distraction, give clear instructions and set boundaries.
7. Consider rewards and competition as a way to enhance motivation.
8. Support them to make independent discoveries and find their own solutions.
Learning Styles and Hands-On Learning Activities
For instance, why not build a collection of toddler play materials and Montessori play materials, that tend to be tactile, and which feel, look and sound good to handle and explore? You could also incorporate natural objects gathered from the school grounds, your garden or on a nature walk.
Appealing to the senses is a brilliant way to get kids into science – gravity, seasons, weather, water, animal habitats, fossils, geology, all these topics and more come alive when there is the opportunity to get hands-on with learning. You could then reinforce the learning through group work and discussion with science board games for kids, especially those with a competitive element. Help kids keep to the rules and observe how they work out their own strategies and solutions while engaging with others.
Super Kids, Super Powers
So, whether you’re teaching or parenting an introvert or extrovert child, pause and lean into what you feel is their natural style of learning so that you can help them understand who they are. How can they connect with what excites them? In what ways can you inspire them to be courageous in their learning? How can you help them express themselves more clearly? Language is a powerful thing. As Susan Cain, says: ‘The value of mastery and self-expression for any child can’t be overstated.’
For younger children it might not be helpful to introduce labels such as introvert and extrovert – these words probably won’t mean much to kids anyway. Instead, why not help them identify their superpowers – whether that’s quiet listening and deep thinking, or speaking up and acting out? They’ll no doubt come up with ideas of what makes them unique. Then, fuel their passions, strengthen their voice, and bring them together to celebrate their successes and the achievements of others, whatever their biology or psychological type.
Jessica Adams is a writer, yoga teacher and mother of two. She has over nine years’ experience of raising boys and a lifelong love of learning, play and creativity.