“Sensitive children shouldn’t have to learn in the wrong environment”

Photo by Zlatko Đurić on Unsplash
Photo by Zlatko Đurić on Unsplash

Highly sensitive children may be more easily distracted and feel uncomfortable in a ‘chaotic’ classroom. What kind of learning environment would better meet their needs? Research psychologist Michael Pluess talks about making new research on sensitivity accessible to a wider audience, particularly parents and teachers.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: I often hear parents describe their children as ‘sensitive,’ but how do you define environmental sensitivity, and why is sensitivity important in a school context?

Michael Pluess: Environmental sensitivity describes the basic ability to perceive and process information about the environment. Although this is important for everyone, people differ substantially in their degree of sensitivity. Some people are more affected by what they experience than others: they’re more negatively affected by negative experiences, but they also seem to benefit more from positive experiences.

“The needs of highly sensitive children may be different from those that have a relatively low degree of sensitivity.”

Besides the family, school is one of the most important contexts for children’s development. Research shows clearly that various aspects of school affect children’s emotional and academic development. However, the needs of highly sensitive children may be different from those that have a relatively low degree of sensitivity. While a supportive school environment is important for every child, the 30% that are particularly high in sensitivity may have slightly different needs.

In a study my colleagues and I are running right now in schools in Ticino (southern Switzerland), we are looking at the relationship between sensitivity in children and school, hoping to get a sense of what is most important for sensitive children.

CSG: What aspects do you think are most important for teachers to know about in order to help children who are more sensitive?

MP: Children who are more sensitive tend to pick up on details of their environment and are more easily distracted. This means they may benefit from a calmer, less chaotic classroom, maybe by having a ‘quiet corner’ where they can have some time and space to themselves. One hypothesis is that learning through group activities may not be ideal for highly sensitive children. They tend to have a very active mind already and may prefer to do much of their thinking alone.

We also think these children are more sensitive to feedback from the teacher. This works both ways: if it’s negative feedback, they are disappointed and frustrated that something hasn’t gone well. On the other hand, they might respond strongly to praise from the teacher and really thrive on that.

Then there’s the social climate in the class. If there’s bullying, it would have a particularly negative impact on sensitive children. And we’re not just talking about sensitive kids being bullied directly. They may pick up on the injustice experienced by others and dislike being in an environment where that happens.

“Sensitivity can become a problem if particularly sensitive children have to learn in an environment that is not suited to them.”

CSG: Why are some children more sensitive than others?

MP: Our first study on the nature and nurture of sensitivity used twin methodology, which is the classic way to estimate how much the differences in a certain trait are due to genetic factors. What we found is that about 47% of the difference between people regarding sensitivity can be explained by heritability. The rest is more influenced by environmental factors. What is interesting is that this fairly even split is what we usually find when looking at common personality traits in humans, indicating sensitivity is a normal and common trait and not a disorder.

It’s important to mention, sensitivity itself is not necessarily a problem. But it can become one if particularly sensitive children have to learn in an environment that is not suited to them.

CSG: What will your current research in the schools in Ticino tell us?

MP: While there is some awareness about sensitivity among those who have read about autism and ADHD, there is hardly any reliable information on the topic for teachers and educational psychologists, nor any validated ways of assessing sensitivity in children. Our study is the first one attempting to develop sensitivity measures that can be used in the context of school and then testing what matters most for sensitive children.

Importantly, it is not a question of either being sensitive or not: Environmental sensitivity lies on a spectrum. There is a risk that sensitive children at the more extreme ends could be misdiagnosed as being on the autism spectrum or as having ADHD. That’s why it’s important to develop measures so in the future we have a comprehensive assessment for professionals, allowing them to distinguish sensitivity, which is a normal trait, from disorders such as autism and ADHD.

“It is not a question of either being sensitive or not: Environmental sensitivity lies on a spectrum.”

CSG: How will the findings of your current research be used?

MP: Once we have completed our work, we plan to compile a booklet about sensitivity for teacher training, to help teachers understand that certain children are more sensitive than others. As their environment has a stronger impact on them, they may have slightly different needs. Teachers can then provide a different learning environment for these children, which might lead to less frustration. In the future, it might even be better to say, ‘You know what, why don’t you stay home this afternoon and do some work on that?’

We will share information about the results on our new website. This website also contains online tests where parents can rate their children’s sensitivity as well as their own.

Michael Pluess is Professor of Psychology at Queen Mary University of London and one of the researchers behind sensitivityresearch.com. The new website is dedicated to sharing reliable and evidence-based knowledge on the human trait of sensitivity. By providing accessible blog posts on recent sensitivity research and opportunities to take part in research studies, the website also aims to educate the public on the topic and in turn, help them to better understand their own sensitivity.

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