When my daughter Rachel was younger, she attended ballet and piano classes — just like her older sister. She wanted to be as good in them as her jiejie (older sister in Mandarin) in these activities. But by mid-term she had grown less enthusiastic. “Did you enjoy the class?,” I’d ask. “I don’t know,” she’d mumble.
Class concerts at the end of each term were the pinnacle of her uneasiness. We could see her trying to climb into herself and disappear, rather than sing and dance in front of all the parents. I worried about how she would cope in Primary School, where she would be thrust into a whole new world, on her own.
A Brand New Environment
In a typical Primary 1 class, there are 30 students. This is usually more than the number of pupils in a usual K2 class. In P1, the teacher does not hold your child’s hand and guide her on a daily basis as her kindergarten teacher may. If my little introverted girl is going to succeed flying solo in P1, she will need to be a resilient pilot. Shyness and introversion will not get her far. Or will it?
Ms. Grace Yong, Founder and Principal of Character Montessori preschool, assures me that being an introvert is not a negative trait, but “actually a gift” and that “extroversion is overrated”.
The mother of four boys explains, “I am not against extroverts but there needs to be a balance. Being an extrovert or an introvert is a gift and neither is better or worse than the other. We need both kinds in our world as they bring different gifts.”
An Introvert Child’s Nature
In Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983), the developmental psychologist identifies eight intelligences that everyone is endowed with, at varying levels. These are: Linguistic, Logical-mathematical, Musical, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Naturalist, Spatial, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal intelligences.
People who are extroverted are high in interpersonal intelligence. They love being around other people, have good interpersonal skills, can persuade people to co-operate with them, and can “read” and respond appropriately to the moods of people around them.
Introverts are high in interpersonal intelligence, tend to be reflective, look deep into themselves, can identify and verbalise their feelings, manage themselves well, and are able to make good decisions for themselves. They need space to reflect and think and are highly creative.
Children who are high in interpersonal intelligence tend to be more selective of their friends and are less likely to buckle under peer pressure in their teens. They are also more committed to excelling in things that they have interest in, can learn well on their own, and feel less of a need to participate in social media.
Bringing Out the Best in Your Introvert Child
Quiet Manifesto image from author Susan Cain’s Facebook page
Ms. Yong shares how her second son, the most introverted of her four sons, copes. “He belongs to the group that Susan Cain (author of 2012 non-fiction book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) describes as “the ones who prefer listening to speaking, who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion, who favor working on their own over working in teams”. He is very musical and because he learns well on his own, he can handle hours of focused practice on his violin. He has learnt to play other instruments including the drums, the guitar and the bass guitar on his own, mostly by following videos on YouTube.”
In contrast, an extrovert may not be able to handle the loneliness of learning by himself.
My daughter Rachel, who is bashful in front of her teachers and among strangers, is far from meek. She voices good ideas that even her big sister listens to. Ms. Yong’s son has that trait as well. She describes, “He holds leadership roles but tends to be criticised for being too demanding on his team members. However, he does care about his team members and works hard at ensuring that they improve and grow under his leadership. He generally finds social media an invasion of his privacy, so he keeps that to the minimal just as long as he is not considered anti-social.”
What You Can Do to Help your Introvert Child
The reality is that we live in a world that “can’t stop talking”. But all our children deserve to be heard over the noise. So how can we teach our introvert children to navigate this world?
These are some of the strategies Ms. Yong recommends:
• Give them Time and Space.
Don’t force or push them to participate in group activities. Give them time and space to observe the activities and often when they have got a good idea of what it going on, invite them to participate.
• Understand their Challenges.
Activities like Show and Tell can be challenging for introvert children, especially if they are not strong in linguistic skills. Assure the children that they have many good ideas that they can share with their friends, affirm their contributions, and help them prepare well for the sessions so that they gain confidence in speaking in front of a crowd.
• Offer Perspectives.
Teach introvert children to see things from other people’s perspectives. As they tend to be more inward looking, this may not come naturally to them. Also teach them to understand how others feel and how to respond to it.
• Teach them to show Care and Concern.
Sometimes introverted children may appear aloof and uncaring towards others. For example, if a member of the family is not feeling well, teach your child that he can show concern by asking, “Mom (or dad, or grandma, or grandpa), Are you feeling better today?”
Ms. Yong shared that when she was ill, her second son was of the opinion that he could observe if she was getting better from the external symptoms and her behavior, instead of asking her directly. “I had to explain to him that it’s important to use words to convey to your concern for others,” she said.
• Ask Teachers for their Help and Cooperation.
When participating in collaborative work in school, ask your child’s teachers to invite introvert children to share their views, and affirm them when they do so.
• Engage them in Conversation.
Give them time and space to discuss their feelings and their opinions. This is helpful as it teaches them to express themselves confidently.
With time, space, and lots of love and encouragement, I am sure that your little introvert will soon be able to find his or her place in the world of Primary School, and live large. I’m hoping that mine will!