How to Support Highly Sensitive Kids So They Can Flourish Socially and Academically

Education > How to Support Highly Sensitive Kids So They Can Flourish Socially and Academically

By Magda Krohn > LAST MODIFIED DATE: 24 October 2023 > In Education

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This article is geared at teachers and parents, explaining what high sensitivity is, how to identify it in a child or young person, and some strategies to support young people on their school journey, from primary to secondary.

As teachers, we’ve all noticed some students in our classroom who are more quiet and reserved. We might have described them as “shy” or “withdrawn”. Parents, perhaps you noticed this about one or more of your own children. For both parents and teachers, kids who are quiet and withdrawn at school are often a cause for concern, however, this might not always be a sign that something is wrong. 

There may be many reasons for why a child or young person doesn’t interact as much as they are expected to, and some of those reasons are serious. But one that isn’t is a widely-studied but little-understood personality trait called Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). People who possess this trait are called Highly Sensitive People (HSP). To be clear, this is not a diagnosable disorder but an inherited personality trait that brings with it many benefits. There is absolutely nothing “wrong” with HSPs.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity – sometimes referred to as environmental sensitivity –  influences the way highly sensitive individuals experience and respond to the world around them. By understanding their needs and providing appropriate support, we can help them thrive and navigate life with confidence. Let’s explore what it means to be highly sensitive and how we can create an environment at school and at home that nurtures rather than rejects their extraordinary qualities.

Understanding Sensory Processing Sensitivity:

The term “highly sensitive person” was coined by Dr. Elaine Aron, a renowned psychologist, who pioneered the study of this trait. SPS is not a disorder or condition; rather, it is a temperament trait found in approximately 15-30% of the population.

Characteristics of Highly Sensitive Kids:

Highly sensitive kids exhibit unique characteristics that distinguish them from their peers. While each child is unique, these are some traits often observed in highly sensitive individuals:

  • Heightened Sensory Awareness: Highly sensitive children and teenagers tend to be acutely aware of their surroundings and can easily become overwhelmed by sensory stimuli such as bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, or too many things happening at once.
  • Emotional Sensitivity: They have a deep emotional capacity and are more likely to experience intense emotions. They may feel empathy towards others more profoundly and be more affected by criticism or negative experiences. Sometimes, they may cry or have a strong emotional reaction to something that might be hard for us to understand. 
  • Deep Empathy and Compassion: Highly sensitive children have a remarkable ability to understand and empathize with the emotions of others. They often have a strong desire to help and care for others, and show conscientiousness and a concern for the wellbeing of people, animals and the environment. 
  • Overstimulation and Fatigue: Due to their heightened sensitivity, sensitive children and teens may become exhausted more quickly in stimulating environments. This is what causes them to withdraw. They may require more downtime and quiet activities to recharge.

Tips for Supporting Highly Sensitive Kids: 

As parents and teachers, we play a crucial role in creating an environment where highly sensitive children can thrive. By having this awareness, we can help prevent negative experiences for sensitive kids, which can lead to decreased mental well-being and poor performance in school.

Here are some practical strategies to help make life less overwhelming for them:

  1. Awareness and Validation: Recognize and acknowledge their unique personality. Help them understand their traits and normalize their experiences so they feel understood and supported. It’s not necessary to explicitly point it out to them, but making them feel that they are valuable just as they are goes a long way and will ensure healthy emotional development. 
  2. Create a Calm and Safe Space: Designate a quiet area where highly sensitive kids can retreat to when they feel overwhelmed. This space can serve as a sanctuary for them to recharge and find solace. This may be a corner of the classroom, the library, or a room in your house.
  3. Sensory Considerations: Be mindful of the sensory environment. Bright lights in schools are one of the biggest triggers, so consider dimming the lights in your classroom when possible. Reducing noise levels, and minimizing strong smells can also alleviate their discomfort and help them focus better.
  4. Gentle Transitions: Provide ample time for transitions between activities. Highly sensitive children may need extra time to process and adjust to changes, so offering a clear schedule and gentle reminders can ease their anxiety.
  5. Encourage Self-Care and Emotional Expression: Teach highly sensitive children the importance of self-care activities like deep breathing exercises, journaling, or engaging in hobbies they enjoy. Encourage them to express their emotions in healthy ways, fostering open communication and emotional growth.
  6. Foster Positive Peer Relationships: Help highly sensitive children build supportive friendships with peers who understand and appreciate their unique qualities. Encourage empathy and kindness among all students to create an inclusive and accepting environment.

Understanding and embracing the unique qualities of highly sensitive children and teens is crucial for their well-being and development. By implementing these strategies, parents and teachers can create a nurturing environment that supports their needs, enabling them to flourish and reach their full potential. 

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