My highly sensitive child (HSC) is a teacher’s dream. He does his work and follows instructions. He wants to please. He’s compliant. He doesn’t make waves. He’s quiet. He’s conscientious. He wants to do his best. He doesn’t want to stand out in the classroom. He doesn’t make a fuss.
In a class of more than thirty children he barely makes a bleep on a teacher’s radar. It’s not that she doesn’t know he’s there, it’s just that it seems like everything is ticking over nicely and her attention is not needed – there are other children who need her more.
It’s something that first struck me when my eldest was five year old. I came to school at the end of the morning to pick him up for lunch and I could see in his eyes, hear in his curt clipped responses to my questions, that his emotions were close to spilling over. Those are the emotions he kept buried deep inside whilst in his busy, noisy classroom.
I’d put my arms around him and feel the energy raging within his little body, stress with nowhere to go. We’d walk home. Sometimes there were tears on the way back, sometimes the beginnings of a meltdown. Or worse still there was silence.
As I opened our front door and he stepped over the threshold to safety, he’d let his emotions go. Sometimes it was rage, anger and aggression that flew out of his taut body. Sometimes it was an inexplicable meltdown that he didn’t understand. Sometimes he bounced from one activity to the other, not being able to concentrate, not being able to slow down. He didn’t know what to do with this energy racing around him.
When I told him it was time to go back to school the battle commenced. I’d have to drag my little boy back over the threshold of safety back into the world, both of us usually in tears.
It was a scene his teachers never saw, could never imagine happening. They never saw the bruises on my shins as my HSC kicked out in his physical attempts to stay home each afternoon. They never saw my tears nor the agonising conflict within me. I wanted to keep him home, protect him, make him feel safe, but I couldn’t – not every day.
By the time he was back in school a truce had been called. Our tears had dried up, his anger had subsided and he was resigned to his afternoon in school.
I’d tell the teacher about the drama we had been through to get him back to school but I faced a brick wall. The image I shared didn’t match the picture of the same quiet, neutral boy in her classroom.
They’d tell me he’s a good learner, a model pupil. They’d tell me that he’s never had a tantrum in school, never kicked a chair in frustration, never raised his voice in anger in the classroom. He’d never made a fuss.
They refused to scratch below the surface, to look beyond the introverted highly sensitive facade. They refused to believe what they hadn’t witnessed first-hand.
“It’s a problem for you to sort out at home, not for us at school. We don’t see a problem here,” his teacher said.
Young highly sensitive children don’t have the tools to filter out unnecessary sensory input. They need support. They need a prompt to seek out quiet moments. They need help in the classroom to prevent their overwhelm spilling out at home where and when they feel safe. Mine is a common story.
The mantra ‘seeing is believing’ has no place when you are responsible for the education of a highly sensitive child. A highly sensitive child needs a teacher to give their parents the benefit of the doubt, even when they can’t see the upset and meltdowns for themselves first hand. Highly sensitive children need teachers to give their parents the gift of trust. A highly sensitive child needs a teacher to give him the support he needs in the classroom without having to see him at his worst.
Highly sensitive children may seem like a teacher’s dream. But actually they are not. They have two intrinsically linked sides to them – one a teacher sees in the classroom and one their parents see in the safe haven of their home. HSCs are difficult to read in the classroom. He won’t come to you when there is a real problem. She needs to trust you completely to feel comfortable. If you speak once in anger to him his confidence is shaken to the core and he won’t approach you when he needs your help most. He finds the days long and tiring. She’s bored easily because she understood your instructions and meaning the first time around but they are repeated for her classmates. He has a wandering mind, distracted by all the activity going on around him, which means he misses some instructions – and then panics. He’ll save up his anger, anxiety, his sadness, his sense of injustice and pour it all out at home, where no teacher can see it.
When it comes to highly sensitive children, a teacher will invariably see a very different child in the classroom than the one their parents see at home. Believing that is true is the first step to really helping a highly sensitive child blossom in an environment that is usually anything but optimal for a HSC.
Top Tip from Elaine Aron for teachers from her book “The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them”:
Work closely with the parents of your HSCs. They often have useful insights and strategies for working with their children. They also need reassurance from you: At home they see a bright, competent, outgoing child and fear that at school you will see someone quite different.