Engaging the Quiet Highly Capable Learners in Your Classroom

Exploring instructional strategies that engage introverted students

Everyone has heard the idiom, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” In our busy, sometimes hectic classrooms, our squeaky wheels—our most extroverted and outgoing learners—are most likely to attract the most attention. Our society, like our classrooms, often highlights the extroverted, outgoing, highly social students. But what about those non-squeaky wheel learners? The introverted or quiet gifted learners can be overlooked. Forty-five percent of children are introverts, but this number is much higher with gifted learners. There are more introverted gifted learners than extroverted gifted learners, which seems at odds in a society that is drawn to bigger and louder. Actually, more gifted students are introverted on average, and as the IQ scores go up, the percentage of introverted students goes up. According to Leslie Sword, author of The Gifted Introvert, as much as 75% of highly gifted children (IQ scores above 160) are introverted.

Gifted students with quiet or introverted personalities have a great deal to contribute to our learning communities. They are often deep thinkers with deep interests, have exceptional powers of engagement, and are often creative problem solvers. However, our schools are riddled with activities that promote and encourage extroverts. Many school-endorsed activities favor students that demonstrate leadership and outgoing or extroverted tendencies: student council, drama, classroom representatives, ambassadors, class plays, speeches, presentations, and even classroom discussions. Finding ways to encourage and engage quiet personalities can be well worth the effort. Here are some strategies to help pave the way for more authentic engagement from your quiet learners and your outgoing learners alike.

Wait Time

Introverted gifted students have valuable knowledge to impart, but sometimes hearing from these students can be difficult. Most find it intimidating to voluntarily respond to discussions and present information to the entire class.

Let’s consider wait time. Teachers tend to wait less than one second for students to reply to their questions (Rowe, 1974, cited in Van Tassel-Baska, 1998). Allowing breathing room after questions are posed can help quiet learners form their answers and build the courage to raise their hands. I am a big fan of Ian Byrd (byrdseed.com), an educator for gifted students. He uses several strategies in his classrooms and identifies two types of wait time: Wait Time I is the time you wait between the question and the answer, Wait Time II is the time you wait after a student speaks before moving on. If teachers get in the habit of waiting, breathing, or counting between the question posed and response time (Wait Time I), introverted learners have time to digest the questions and determine their responses. Waiting at least 3-5 seconds is a great place to start. If you are asking open ended, higher level thinking questions, your wait time should increase with the depth of the questions. In addition, wait time can add more complexity and richness to discussions.

Think Time

Think time is one of my favorite strategies. I tend to use it with my students and family alike. Ask a question, but ask for a minute of quiet (think time) before answering the question. Think time was a brainchild of Mary Budd Rowe. She found that quiet students needed time to think; time to be engaged, actively listening, and thinking. I also like to ask a question twice and pause after the question is asked, both times.

Think, Pair, Share

If students are hesitant to raise their hands, another strategy is Think, Pair, Share. This equity pedagogical practice developed by Dr. Frank Lyman helps vary and increase participation without being overt. After a teacher poses a thought-provoking question to the class, each student “thinks” about the question and writes down their response. Then they are encouraged to share it with a peer (“pair”). Sometimes a quiet, gifted student can find her confidence through the encouragement of a single peer. Once the pair has “shared”, you can move on or a larger group discussion can flow from the paired contributions.

Pick Your Neighbor

Quiet gifted students thrive when around like-minded peers with similar interests and personalities. Quiet students are usually more comfortable working with someone they know. Allowing students to sit next to a like-minded friend can benefit quiet students. They may feel more comfortable sharing with a friend or someone that shares their temperament.

Prep the Discussion

As much as teachers love to talk (myself included), students can be overloaded with verbal information. My sons often complain that teachers talk during the entire block (85 minutes). That would be difficult for adults to handle, much less young adults and teenagers. Students need time to digest information, just like the rest of us. As teachers begin a discussion, students should be encouraged to jot down some thoughtful notes. Once the discussion turns to comments and questions, quiet students armed with these notes have more confidence to participate, or alternately these notes could be shared with the teacher (one to one) after class to demonstrate active listening. Discussion notes also can be shared at classroom conference time or after school.

Solicit Feedback

There are numerous ways to solicit feedback from your quiet learners. Slower paced discussions tend to foster more thoughtful answers. Introverts often find it difficult to interrupt discussions with questions and comments. Asking for feedback with a sticky note placed on the teachers desk, through journaling, or in small group “breakaways” where students are able to demonstrate evidence of learning, makes the quiet learner more comfortable.

Some introverted students have told me they find that when they offer comments early in discussions it helps alleviate their anxiety as the conversation progresses. Non-talking modes of engagement such as thumbs up or down, nodding, smiling, and shrugging shoulders are ways introverted students can demonstrate active listening and engagement without overt participation.

Encouraging your quiet learners to demonstrate their different and varied points of view will enrich your entire learning community. These strategies will let your quiet students know that you value their contributions without forcing them to ignore their unique personalities. Remember, when quiet students hesitate before responding, it doesn’t mean they are not engaged. Some students need time to think before they speak (introverts) and some students need to speak in order to think (extroverts).

More Strategies to Engage Introverted Learners

Quiet Time
During reading time in class, quiet students can be engaged in solitude. Reading in class lets them absorb information, concentrate, and demonstrate their curiosity while letting them recharge by being alone.

Headphones with instrumental music (without lyrics) help quiet students take a break from the normal classroom. This strategy has been successful for all of my students, extroverts and introverts alike.

Online Discussion
Online chats and forums can supplement overt class participation. These platforms allow quiet students to participate without feeling like they are in the spotlight.

Small Group to Whole Class
Starting with small group work that leads up to whole class discussion helps students think before they discuss.

Ice Breakers with less Pressure
Ice breakers for extroverts are exciting and fun, but they can be painful and nerve-racking for introverts. At the beginning of school when icebreakers are popular ways for students to get to know one another, try to come up with activities or games that don’t put pressure on your quiet students.