Introvert? Extrovert? Or other?

By Anna Landes Benz

Happy National Introverts Week! If you’re an introvert, we celebrate you. If you know an introvert, this post might help you better understand them. If you’re an extrovert or an ambivert…well, they don’t have a national week of recognition for you yet. You might have to make your own!

My father loves to tell a story from my childhood that depicts the difference between me and my older brother. We’re on a plane going to visit our grandparents. My brother is around six years old and content to sit in his seat, not wanting his feet to touch the ground. I’m around three, and I’m on the floor, crawling around. I sneak out from our row and almost get run over by the beverage trolley as I try to crawl past the curtain separating first class from everyone else. 

As I grew older I identified a lot with my father, an extreme “people person.” I was a very outwardly expressive child. Enthusiastic. Energetic. Big feelings and emotions that I needed to share with everyone. Despite being small, I was loud with big opinions. I always assumed I was an extrovert, because I was boisterous, energetic, and enthusiastic about exploring the world around me.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I was surprised to find myself very content to be at home “hermiting,” as I call it. Get-togethers were canceled or moved online, where we were still able to connect with friends, but separately, from our respective homes. Professional responsibilities went virtual, and I spent less time both commuting and transitioning between events. All of this made me question how I saw myself. Had I changed over time? Had the pandemic changed me? Or was I never an extrovert to begin with? 

A young child covers her face with her hands.
Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

The Introversion-Extroversion Spectrum

Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., describes introverts and extroverts this way in her book The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child:

Introverts generally prefer stimulation in small, manageable doses, whereas extroverts seek lots of action and excitement. An introvert may pursue topics in depth, while an extrovert would be more oriented toward breadth…. An introvert often needs time to “process” his emotions before responding; an extrovert is more likely to react in the moment. 

These classifications have been around for quite a while. None other than Carl Jung, the pioneering psychiatrist, proposed the idea of introversion and extroversion way back in 1921. These days, we often classify people as introverts or extroverts based on what gives them energy or what allows them to recharge their battery. Introverts are often described as feeling drained after socializing and needing time alone to recharge. Extroverts are said to get energy from being around people. But things may not be as simple as that binary would suggest. As early as 1927, Edna Heidbreder published the results of a study conducted at the University of Minnesota which concluded that “Introverts and extroverts are not distinct types, but belong to a single mixed type of which introversion and extroversion are the extremes.” Most people fall somewhere in between on a spectrum. Maybe, instead of being purely an extrovert as I had always assumed, I was actually somewhere in the middle, like most people.

As for whether extroverts can become introverts or vice versa, there is debate in the psychology field about how much personality traits (like the “Big Five,” of which extroversion is one) change over the lifespan. There is some evidence that people mellow out as they age, and a recent study even found that the pandemic might have caused at least temporary changes in people’s personalities. Maybe my newfound enjoyment of “hermiting” was part of that shift.

Why does this matter? 

It remains to be seen whether I will return to my pre-pandemic level of extroversion. For now, my experience has made me more attuned to the needs of the introverts in my life. Whether we are stuck with our temperament from birth, our personalities adapt to our early environment, or our traits are fluid and change over time, it can be helpful to have words and language to better understand who we are and how to interact with those around us. This is especially true when we support the development of young children, who are still building their understanding of the world within and around them and learning how to communicate what they’re discovering and feeling. 

The Characteristics of an Introverted Child

Jenn Granneman, author of The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World, posits that introverted children share certain characteristics. Bearing in mind that every child is unique and that we exist on an introversion-extroversion spectrum, Granneman’s description of introverted children resonated with my experiences. According to Granneman, such children:

  • have rich inner lives
  • reflect on their life and experiences
  • are intent observers
  • are resistant to peer pressure
  • warm up slowly to new people and environments
  • may struggle in formal group settings like child care centers and schools
  • prefer to socialize with one other person or in small groups. 

Knowing all of this, what can we do to support children–whether at home or in our work–when they tend more towards introversion?

General tips for supporting introverted children

  • Create routines that help to settle the nervous system and give space for quiet after stimulating situations. This may be especially helpful at transition times like arriving home from school or getting ready for bed.
  • Make a plan and practice. If small talk or approaching a potential new friend is hard for a child, talk through their feelings in advance. Role-play initiating conversations. When the time comes for a child to introduce themself to a new friend, ask someone to play, or strike up a conversation, they can partner with a buddy who may already have these skills. Alternatively, their caregiver can act as a buddy and then slowly leave the interaction, letting the child continue the conversation on their own once they are comfortable. 

Supporting introverted children in a child care or school-based setting

  • Look at your classroom from multiple perspectives. Do you have a mix of spaces, activities, and ways of responding that allow all children to be themselves? 
  • Some children are quick to answer and raise their hands right away. Others never get the chance, because by the time they’ve collected their thoughts and composed their answers, the discussion has moved on. Those children may need a bit more time to build the courage to express themselves, especially in a group discussion. Be sure to leave thinking time.
  • Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, try to make sure that your preferences aren’t unduly influencing how you set up, teach, and respond in your classroom.
  • Find picture books that depict all types of children being the hero in the story.
  • Talk as a class about differences and similarities within your classroom. Discuss how children feel in different situations, helping them articulate what they need to be their best.
  • Young children are still developing vocabulary and language skills, and some kids find using visuals easier when their emotions are heightened, so consider using visual cue cards. Cue cards can help with talking about emotions and identifying strategies for self-regulation. They can also be used to communicate when emotions are heightened and a child needs a break. Head Start has some great resources to get you started.  
  • Brainstorm ideas to support different children’s needs, and let young learners take some initiative in implementing their ideas. Maybe they want to create a quiet space within the classroom. Or maybe they want a way to remind one another when the volume in the classroom is getting too loud. 
  • Make individual plans with children who need quiet or alone time. Develop a secret hand signal they can give you when they need a break, or practice using the cue cards we talked about earlier. Make a plan for where they can go and what they can do during their break. 
  • Practice. Give children reminders. Help them recognize within themselves signals that they may need some quiet time.

Supporting introverted children at home

  • Create a retreat or restorative niche. Often these are quiet, calm places with adjustable lighting. You might include some calming sensory experiences such as the smell of lavender or a soft toy or pillow to hug. Create this as a family so that everyone feels included. 
  • Find stories at your local library about kids handling overwhelming situations and environments. If you don’t know where to start, ask a librarian. They are superheroes of the library!
  • Make a list of calming actions to do alone or together when your child starts to feel overwhelmed:

Deep breathing
Taking a break 
Putting on noise-canceling headphones
Using a weighted blanket
Getting outside to observe and listen to nature
Doing something rhythmic and repetitive
Swinging on a swing
Bouncing a ball on a point
Jumping on a mini-trampoline
Hugging a pillow or stuffed animal
Listening to a piece of music to help reset
Making a cup of tea or a snack, focusing the brain on the process
Cuddling a pet (as long as the pet is okay with it!)

Whether you’re an infant, a toddler, a preschooler, a teen, or an adult, an introvert, an extrovert, or somewhere in between, it’s important that your individual differences are honored. When, as early childhood professionals, we are aware of the full spectrum of human desire for both social contact and quiet solitude, we are better able to meet children’s needs. 

All of us need time to recharge; recharging is directly related to improved mental and physical health. As parents or caregivers or in our professional lives, making this a part of our routine means that when we really need it, we automatically have several tools to use when we need them. 

Further resources: 

Susan Cain is the author of two popular books about introverts: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids. If you are short on reading time, she also has a TED talk.

Brightly has a roundup of books with introverted characters that includes picture books as well as books for middle grade and young adult readers.

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