Three Ways to Help All Children to Value Others’ Differences As Well As Their Own

Three Ways to Help All Children to Value Others’ Differences As Well As Their Own

Today, they would call me an introvert, but when I was a child, the label was “shy.”

I remember the challenges of wanting to demonstrate to my teacher that I was paying attention or mastering concepts but often felt intimidated by participating in class.

The classroom was an overstimulating environment. The number of people and all that surrounded me was enough to hinder my thoughts, let alone the fact that I was expected to process and interact. Unable to keep up, I would quickly shut down.

Today, I teach at first grade in the very same school where I struggled as a student. Though I now enter this building as a teacher, I still struggle as an introvert in an extrovert-dominated career. But I’m reminded of why I became a teacher.

Connecting with my students — introverts, extroverts, and those in-between — and helping them understand and value one another for their differences is my greatest hope.

Creating a positive learning environment for all students requires empathy –and often creativity! When it comes to helping my quiet or introverted students, here are three things that I’ve learned.

First, make their voices heard. A culture of learning starts with sharing. A few years ago, I used low-tech or no tech solutions to help my introverted students feel valued and heard. For instance, having them share post-it notes instead of having to share aloud to the class. But I found that often the post-it notes weren’t enough.

Now, with emerging technology, the picture is changing. We use an app called ClassDojo, which allows students to share their own reflections and thoughts in class, without having to speak to everyone in the room. ClassDojo also allows the entire class to celebrate student growth and progress. Many would think this is the last thing an introvert would want – being acknowledged in front of the entire class. However, most introverts often yearn for encouragement and validation.

For example, I’m better able to encourage bravery and risk-taking by acknowledging when students step outside their comfort zones–and share home those milestones with parents.  It’s created a supportive cycle between school and home so students feel cared for in every aspect of their lives. And it’s helped me reach those students who remain quiet due to fearing mistakes and failure.

Second, establish an empathetic classroom culture. Technology alone won’t make introverted students feel comfortable. Our classroom environment matters, too. Through ClassDojo, our classroom is also accessing powerful videos developed in collaboration with Stanford and Harvard which pose thought-provoking scenarios and questions to my young students. Ideas like empathy and growth mindset, which have now become the foundation of our classroom.

Because of these videos, my students know that their brains are like muscles, and the best way to grow their knowledge is to try challenging things. You’ll hear them talk about the “magic of mistakes” and “the power of yet.” My quiet students and those who tend to refrain from stepping out of their comfort zones for fear of making mistakes are now fully aware that mistakes are crucial. They’ve begun to challenge themselves and take risks in front of their classmates largely in part to the conversations we’ve had together.

They’ve taken these risks because their classmates have shown them empathy. They know what it means to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and they know the importance of doing so each and every moment of the day, which has helped my louder, more talkative students take a moment to think of how my quieter students might be feeling. Because we’ve discussed that we are different and have different feelings, my students verbally acknowledge their understanding and support of one another. To hear empathy explained and practiced by 6-year-olds makes for the most beautiful moments.

Third, set goals. Each student in my class sets goals. As a student makes progress toward their goal, they are celebrated by the entire class. Quiet students might be recognized for risk-taking and bravery, while those tending to control conversation are thanked for pausing to put themselves in another’s shoes. We don’t acknowledge every single moment. But what we do acknowledge sparks thought and discussion. How powerful it is when we publicly acknowledge student successes and milestones! We must choose our words carefully and purposefully.

Because my students have heard me praise their classmates, they’ve begun to do so as well, without expecting any praise in return. Risk-taking has become a habit for many students, not only my quiet ones. All students know their ideas will be valued. My hope is that this safe environment has eased the anxiety of all my students, especially those quiet, highly sensitive souls. We must reassure these students that what they think and say is valuable and how they think and speak is too. Their quiet nature is their strength. We must choose our words carefully and intentionally as we support and encourage all students, particularly our quiet ones.

“The next generation of quiet kids can and must be raised to know their own strengths.” – Susan Cain

This piece was originally published in The Hechinger Report on May 23, 2017

Carissa Holloway is a first grade teacher at Yorktown Community Schools in Yorktown, Indiana.