It is miraculous that flower should rise by flower alike in loveliness — as though mirrors of some perfection could never be too often shown — silence holds them — in that space. William Carlos Williams 'The Crimson Cyclamen"
In a few days’ time I will, once again, following a year’s hiatus, be in a classroom with young people. I am looking forward to it. Very much. I am also aware that each one of these young people will be new to me, and many will be new to each other. At all times, we educators have to treat young people with care and respect, however this is at its most crucial when we first meet. All of us in that room are special, all of us bring with us diversity, all of us are human.
I have been told many times in my life, from childhood to just recently, that I am really sensitive. I know I am. I know that there are certain stimuli that send chemicals in my body racing. Despite trying to learn how to control the reactions to such emotions, there are times when “things” just spill out. And I am not alone.
The label “sensitive” carried negative connotations in the culture that I grew up in. Calling someone too sensitive implied a weakness of sorts, an inferiority which justified that person’s perspectives and feelings being discounted. However, there is much to suggest that considering a truly sensitive person in this way not only damages that person, but also robs the world of possibility.
Human sensitivity exists on a continuum where the vast majority of people are somewhere in the middle. And many of us will display sensitivity to some things and not to others. However, about 20% of the human population displays what is known as high Sensory Processing Sensitivity, that is, they are highly sensitive to external stimuli. This exquisite response to the environment is biologically encoded whereby stimuli in the world result in extra-strong neural activations in areas relating to awareness, attention, and integration of sensory information. As with all biological adaptations, such sensitivity serves an evolutionary purpose which is, fundamentally, survival.
Unlike the majority of people, whose responses adjust moderately to threat, highly sensitive people, through their heightened responses to stimuli, tend to learn more from information they receive thereby enabling them to respond more nimbly in familiar harsh conditions and to offer far more finessed contributions in peaceful conditions. Unfortunately, they are also more susceptible to being harmed when they find themselves in confronting environments.
Typically, such people, who may well be errantly labelled as shy or introverted (especially when they were younger), have rich and complex inner lives, notice and enjoy delicate fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art. They can be very much aware of the needs of their body (especially when this awareness is harnessed), feel at home immersed in nature, and can be overwhelmed by strong, coarse stimuli. They tend to avoid situations which are violent, including movies and TV shows, and have a need to withdraw into a quiet space to be able to desensitise, to allow the heightened neural responses to dissipate. Given their sensitivity to sudden stimuli, such people strive for routine, one which often includes a closing period where they might journal or reflect in order to process the events of the day.
In The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some People Struggle and How All Can Thrive, Dr. Thomas Boyce likens the majority of the children to dandelions which can survive regardless of environment, and the highly sensitive children to orchids which need to be “planted” in supportive nurturing environments in order that they thrive and blossom into the most beautiful flowers. Such orchid children are more open, permeable, and tender to their surroundings, for good and for bad. This carries with it a great responsibility for those of us who work with them.
Highly sensitive children’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol and their fight-or-flight systems react more quickly, easily, and intensely to mild stressors than the other 80 percent of children’s. Stress-reactive children have greater brain wave activity in the right prefrontal cortex, an area involved in emotion regulation, impulse control, and planning. Those who experience a lot of conflict with their teachers (especially in their early years) are significantly more likely to experience mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety later, than those who don’t. On the other hand, Boyce suggests, the paths of dandelion children are much less negatively affected by the quality of the relationships they have with their teachers. Unlike the former, these less sensitive children will survive (though may not thrive) in situations which could ravage their more sensitive peers.
Admonishing a highly sensitive child, either through words like “get your act together”, toughen up” and “you shouldn’t feel that way”, or through punishment, can be greatly overwhelming for them. Conversely, too much sheltering can also be deleterious to their ability to later function healthily in the broader world. Instead, such children need to have the right soil, water, light, nutrition, and temperature so that they may thrive. They need predictability and routines, positive classroom climates, space and respect for their different voices and opinions, support for their interests, time to play and fantasize, and swift responses from their teachers and carers when the horizon starts to darken.
These highly sensitive children, when nourished and cared for, develop into what Deborah Ward calls people who are “wired for wonder”. As they mature, such sensitivity can still be challenging, and greatly so, but the value brought by their deep inner worlds and the ways they engage with those open to them is essential if our world is to be better. Such people have a better awareness of themselves and can face difficult situations rather than pretending they don’t exist. They are more creative and give us words, drawings, song, and music through which they express their emotions and help us connect with ours. They are more empathetic, and they tend to speak up for, in words and actions, the mistreatment of others. They tend to be more intuitive and can pick up on and adapt to situations more quickly. They are inspirational: loyal, driven, brave, and genuinely passionate in what moves them. They immerse themselves in the world that they inhabit. They have a deep appreciation of beauty in so much that surrounds them and can draw others into seeing this. They are needed in our world.
Of course we need to take care and realise that this is not a dichotomy. Many humans have a mix of sensitivities. This is important to remember when we are working with children who are still developing. At some level all of them are affected by the rising social adversities that they are facing and so we need to be supportive of all in the best way we can. Having said this, it is important to emphasise that those children most vulnerable to the impacts of environments of deprivation are also those who would benefit most from a caring environment. We need to be aware and act on this.
Children are our collective keepers of the future and I could not imagine what our world would be like without those who deeply connect with it.