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School,  The How

What Would Make School Perfect for Your Highly Sensitive Child?

Schooling is an issue for many a highly sensitive child (HSC). Traditional schools often fall short of meeting the needs of a HSC either because of space limitations, overcrowding or lack of money and understanding. So what would a perfect school for highly sensitive children look like? Imagine a blank canvas.

Why Bother Imagining the Perfect School?

I asked parents in the Happy Sensitive Kids community so share their ideas and thoughts. Why? By imagining the perfect school, you can more easily see where your child is struggling in their school environment and what they need to start thriving. School will never be perfect for your child, or any child, but there are definitely (easy and small) steps to be made to make school better!

Teachers

I have more respect for teachers than I can express. I’ve been in all of my children’s classrooms to help out at one time or another and I am full of admiration for how teachers deal with classes.

But they are human and they have limitations. When they are asked to do more and more with less and less I have every sympathy with them.

But let’s face it, the teaching style of some is just not compatible with highly sensitive traits.

So, in a perfect world this is what parents of HSCs would love to see when it comes to teachers in the perfect school for highly sensitive children:

    • Teachers that don’t raise their voices, shout at students or make general accusations of wrongdoing in a class on order to find a culprit.
    • Educators who handle the class with gentleness.
    • Teachers who know that it is ok to be sensitive.
    • Teachers who are themselves highly sensitive, or at the very least completely understand what highly sensitive is and what it means for a child in school.
    • Two teachers in the class.
    • All teachers would know about mindfulness.
    • Teachers would be able to spot a HSC and identify early (some look nothing like they think).
    • Teachers would be trained to deal with kids with different personalities.
    • Adults would be well-informed on developmental psychology and understand how to put it into practice for the benefit of the children’s wellbeing and learning.

school children

Treat Children as Individuals

In schools there is too often a blanket method of doing things thrown over the children, a one-size-fits-all idea of school. That doesn’t work for a HSC. Some parents do not feel that their children are really understood and ‘known’ by their teachers and with that in mind here’s what parents would like to see……

    • A willingness to take the extra time (either as an individual or by providing extra staff as a school) to give attention to children who need things done differently.
    • There would be time for teachers to connect to their students – to get to know them: as one parent beautifully put it: “Talk to them about their interests, what moves them, what brings them joy.”
    • Children are felt seen, heard and acknowledged…they are not just one in a crowd.
    • There would be regular (individual) review sessions where children themselves can share how they can be helped, their aspirations, what interferes with their learning.
    • Allow parents to stay as long as the child needs.

The Classroom

One of my children is one of 35 in a class. Let that sink in. 35 kids in a pivotal schooling year. Another is one of 30. One teacher, 30 kids. It’s a lot. There are calls in the Netherlands at the moment for this to change but meanwhile my sons are faced with the reality of overcrowded classes. In our perfect school class sizes would certainly be smaller.

Secondly, where a HSC sits in class greatly influences how they feel and how they cope in the classroom.

Here’s what parents had to say on this topic:

    • 18 -22 children in a class.
    • Prior warning would be given of changes to seating arrangements.
    • The impact of seating a noisy or unruly child next to a HSC would be fully understood.

Physical Environment

How would classrooms look? Parents have great ideas about the environment for the perfect school for highly sensitive children:

    • Cosy environment, no bright white everywhere.
    • Minimal classroom decorations and places to put unfinished projects and supplies away. Clutter translates into visual noise and can cause overstimulation. 
    • Quiet, orderly classroom environment.
    • The school would have to be next to a woodland area, where the children spend hours at a time. (This sounds heavenly, right?)
    • Less institution like and more like home.
    • A less rushed and stressed environment.
    • There would be school pets.

Quiet Time & Spaces

Highly sensitive children need down time, and lots of it. Even the extroverts. Most schools do not and (often due to space restrictions) cannot provide highly sensitive children with the space or time in quiet that they need to empty their buckets. The perfect school would have:

    • Breakout spaces that can shut out the noise, or shut in a group that needs to be noisy for a time.
    • A range of spaces in size and look. Could be a box or hut or spherical-type ball chair for climbing into. Could be a glass room with sliding door, could be a room with low visual stimulation and places to do learning and activities – a desk, the floor. All of these spaces and more are needed by different children. 
    • Acoustic dampening in all/many spaces.
    • A “no fly zone” for kids to decompress, even if it was just a quiet table with noise canceling headsets.
    • Comfy reading corners.
    • Warm and cozy areas (like big beanbag chairs) and quiet places to go to be alone.
    • Sensory spaces.
    • No requirement to be in the group all the time.
    • Allow time to recharge according to the needs of the child.

Learning & Class Activities

How and what would kids learn in the perfect school for a HSC? Parents have ideas on that too:

    • Kids would learn self compassion and soothing skills. 
    • Kids would learn that emotions are okay.
    • Awareness that special “fun” activities can be hell for some children.
    • ‘Teachers’ (staff and family members) supporting child-led, inquiry-based learning journeys.
    • Focus on wellbeing first, which will help to optimism the learning environment.
    • More flexibility in the classroom would be great for any HSC – for example the ability to doodle while listening to the teacher because it helps a child’s anxiety and helps them focus.
    • Lots of play.
    • Maintain a consistent daily schedule and preview it at the beginning of each day.
    • Prior warning would be given of changes to the schedule.
    • Understanding that intelligence and speed are not the same thing, especially in tests.
    • More downtime and less focused on scores.

The perfect school for a highly sensitive child would be next to woodlands

 School Hours

School days are draining for so many highly sensitive children. So what would parents do about school hours? This:

    • Flexibility with school hours – allow half days if need be.
    • Fewer hours in school.
    • A combination of school and home schooling.
    • Learning at home is a valid part of the school week and processes are in place for easy recording and reporting of the learning (great for reducing stimulation).

Breaks/Recess

For many HSCs lunch breaks and recess is a nightmare. There’s no opportunity to recharge and escape to a quiet place. This is what a HSC would have in a perfect world.

    • Allow students who are “scared” or overstimulated on the playground  go to the classroom during recess to read, draw or rest.
    • Space for quiet, alone time, especially during lunch breaks.
    • Be able to go to the bathroom without asking.

Schools with Ideas Worth Stealing

“My son’s school has a FLO (Family Liasion officer) — basically a person who is different from the school counsellor or a special needs person but who is trained in the same things — to whom kids know they can go talk “when they are sad or worried”. Her office is a safe space, and i know my son visits her several times during the day (in his case, he doesn’t have to ask permission to leave the classroom to go visit her).” Tanya Slavin

“My children’s school has begun coaching sessions so each child sits with the teacher to talk about how they feel in class, how they are doing and what interests them – the positive impact on the children is remarkable and the teacher feedback was also enthusiastic. There’s time to create a genuine connection.” Happy Sensitive Kids

“His school also has a school dog – kids can “read” to her or also spend time with her when they feel sad.” Tanya Slavin

Put lamps in the classroom and turn off the glaring overhead lights for periods of time throughout the day.”

I read aloud from a novel with the classroom lights off after recess…I tried to allow 20-30 min of independent reading time daily where kiddos could lay on the floor, sit on cushions.”

Thanks so much to all the parents who contributed!

So I guess all we need now is a few locations, and a few sacks of money to start up the perfect school for highly sensitive children……

Over to You

  • What would you add?
  • How close is your child’s school to the perfect school?
  • What elements listed here do you see back in your child’s current school?
  • Talk to your child – what elements on this list resonates with them? What would make them happy to be in school?
  • Is there something in this list that your school easily implement?
  • Are you ready to start the dialogue with your school?

20 Comments

  • Jennifer Bullock

    We have a great school that allows us more time with our girls who are both Highly Sensitive. The school is a University Model School and our girls go to school 3 days a week from 8:30-2:30 and are home 4 days a week (including Saturday and Sunday). In Elementary they don’t have homework, so they have a lot of downtime after school days. The school’s model helps them to be prepared and gain independence which I feel is super important as my girls like to know what’s coming next and also have a say in some of their choices. Our teachers are mostly compassionate and at least willing to sit and chat about HSP even though some of them don’t understand it they’re very respectful. Of course I wish everyone knew about HSP and that I didn’t have to advocate but we are lucky to be in a school situation that is nurturing and the class sizes are smaller. Love these other “wants” in a perfect school and I agree with a lot of them as well.

  • Meg Brown

    I am so happy to find this blog! I am just learning about HSC and so relieved to FINALLY have a name for it so I can research and help our 12yr old girl. It has been a challenging journey so far. I am currently looking for a different school (she is currently in 6th grade), but having trouble finding the best fit. Any recommendation on where to even start?

    • Amanda van Mulligen

      Read everything you can – especially Elaine Aron’s book (check here a list of great books: https://happysensitivekids.com/resources-about-highly-sensitive-people/) and then determine what your daughter’s instruction manual looks like – what are her triggers? What overwhelms her? What does she need to blossom? Is it small classes? Clear instructions? Quiet environment? Independent learning? Once you understand her needs and which of her highly sensitive characteristics effect her learning you are better placed to find a school that matches those needs. It’s a struggle and a long road – but follow her needs step by step and you’ll get there. If you are not in the Happy Sensitive Kids Community on Facebook then join the group there for lots of advice – many have been through this change or are going through this. The group is here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/HappySensitiveKidsCommunity/

  • Laryssa

    Such a comprehensive list! It took us 5 years and 2 schools to finally find the perfect school for our child. High Park Day School in Toronto hits almost all of the points in your post. I can hardly express what a relief it was to finally find a school that ‘gets’ us. We found our tribe. HSP families, don’t give up on searching for the right school for you.

  • Elasha Nunez

    I have been loving this site!

    What do you think about the Montessori model for highly sensitive kids? I feel like mine, who is not an introvert, BTW, thrives on making her own choices and socializing / learning from other kids, instead of the sit and listen classroom.

    • amandavmulligen

      I don’t have any personal experience with Montessori but your rationale is solid. Maybe ask the question in the Happy Sensitive Kids Facebook community to see what other’s have experienced with this method of schooling perhaps?

  • Pablo Perez Casal

    Hi. We have read few books about HSC but today we have found this site and we think it is really helpful and interesting! This post about the perfect school for HSC is summarizing what we all have felt is missing in most schools. Do you know any good primary school in The Netherlands for HSC? Thanks.

    • amandavmulligen

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Unfortunately there isn’t a custom made school for a GSC anywhere that I know of. There are posts on here about finding the best match, but there isn’t a one size fits all HSCs in NL.

      • Pablo Perez Casal

        Thanks for your reply. I know there is not a perfect school, that fits all children or all HSCs. We just wanted to know if anybody has info of a school in NL which has worked well for HSCs and that has many of the characteristics indicated in the post. Any info would be welcome. Then of course we would look more in detail, visit, talk, etc. Thanks again!

        • amandavmulligen

          I know of the Happy School in Utrecht which was set up in 2017 for gifted and highly sensitive children. Might be worth looking at.

          • Pablo Perez Casal

            Thanks! I have looked at their website. It looks an interesting school. It is not just for gifted children, even if many HSC are “gifted”. But mainly for curious children eager to experiment rather than sit all day. But they indicate explicitely in their website that the school is not for HSC (hoge prikkelgevoeligheid) or “children with difficult regulation of emotions”, as they “have no expertise in that” and also due to the regular changes happening in their school. Anyway, their concept looks quite interesting, we will explore it a bit further. Thanks for the advice.

          • amandavmulligen

            Interesting, because we looked at it in 2017 and they were claiming then that they wanted to create an environment for HSCs. So good to know they moved away from that concept…..

          • Saori

            We live in Japan and we’ve been looking for a best fit school for my two HSC girls. I’m SO thankful for your blog! I just found a good school for my 10 yo with help of your blog. It’s an IB PYP (International Baccalaureate Primary Year Program) in one international school in Tokyo. I have shared your link of ‘25 things HSC’s teacher need to know’ with the school first, and a generous teacher offered a trial for my girl. She loved the class. My girls were in Montessori kindergarten and they both were very happy there. But Japanese public schools never worked for them.
            The best fit schools for HSC that I think so far would be:

            Montessori
            Alternative schools like democratic school and Sudbury school
            IB International Baccalaureate
            Combination of homeschooling and school

  • Saori

    Hi! We live in Japan and we’ve been looking for a best fit for our two girls after struggling with old fashioned Japanese public schools. We’ve just found a better fit school program for my 10 yo, that is IB PYP (International Baccalaureate Primary Program) in an international school in Tokyo. I’m SO thankful for you and your blog!! have shared the link about ‘25 Things HSC’s Teacher Need to Know’ with the school in advance, and I have requested a kind, generous teacher. One teacher offered a trial for her and she loved the class. She will start going to the school tomorrow.
    I personally believe the following learning environment are good match for HSCso far:

    Montessori
    Alternative schools like democratic school and Sudbury school
    IB International Baccalaureate
    Combination of homeschooling and school

    • amandavmulligen

      That is great news. I hope the new environment is everything your 10 year old needs. I am so glad posts here have helped you. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience and thoughts.

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