The term "highly sensitive people" was first developed by psychologist Elaine Aron to describe the roughly 15-20 per cent of each population in every animal species whose senses are very finely tuned.
These highly sensitive people are hyperaware and can become easily overwhelmed by the moods, smells or actions of others.
Within schools, this could manifest in highly sensitive students who are more reactive, shy or prone to stress.
This, in turn, could lead to punishments or unnecessary labelling, which could easily be avoided if educators became more aware of the term and started applying strategies within their lesson plans.
A lack of awareness
However, after working within the international teaching sphere for seven years, I have noticed that within professional development sessions, there is a lack of training in this area.
This means there is a lack of awareness of the term. Of course, in general, day-to-day staff conversations, it is a topic that rarely comes up.
To delve into this more, I carried out some semi-structured interviews as part of my own professional development and asked various teachers about their knowledge of this term and how they cater for highly sensitive students in their lessons – if at all.
Of the teachers I interviewed, many of them indicated that they knew some of their students were highly sensitive but they weren’t fully familiar with the term.
When asked how they catered for sensitive students, many said they would try to engage them more in tasks or ask them open questions – but were doing so without any knowledge as to whether this was really the best support for them.
How to help
Another key point was that they had no consistency when catering for sensitive learners.
Some mentioned that there was a lack of resources available and the weaker students and those with special educational needs and disabilities were often seen as a priority when differentiating.
Fundamentally, this was the key point: because there was no formal training on this topic, it is hard for teachers to know how to provide for these students.
When highly sensitive students are in a favourable environment, they achieve better grades and have higher levels of social competency (Baryła-Matejczuk, 2020).
So let’s start here and now. The first question we need to ask is:
What are the signs of highly sensitive pupils?
The Institute of Educational Advancement (2017) lists the following:
- Can be slow to answer questions and may respond with unusual or creative ideas.
- Overstimulated very easily and does not manage deadlines or time pressure well.
- Reacts emotionally and takes criticism very personally.
- Notice small differences in their surroundings and people.
Teachers should make themselves aware of these points and understand that spotting these signs can help start the process of identifying highly sensitive students, and how to help them.
Part of this should also include being careful before labelling learners as "oversensitive" or "dramatic", so we do not prejudge such learners and how we treat them.
This could especially the case for boys, for whom being highly sensitive in societies in which males are expected to be tough, strong and perhaps stoic can be difficult. Using negative terms to describe any behaviour that deviates from these supposed norms could be damaging.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, running professional development sessions on the topic or providing teachers with resources will greatly improve the awareness of this issue – which in turn could have a big impact on the quality of teaching and learning.
By being aware of all this and having time and space among teachers, support staff and pupils, we could transform the lives of many students.
Orla Carlin is an English teacher working in the UAE. She has taught internationally for seven years