Are our Schools Greenhouses or Danger-Zones for our Highly Sensitive Children?

Highly Sensitive Children & Differential Susceptibility

Anyone who is highly sensitive, or who has a Highly Sensitive Child, will doubtless recognise the impact of environment and experiences on the Highly Sensitive individual, in a way that does not seem to be the case for non-highly sensitive people.

flower-1205148_640The theory of “differential-susceptibility” has been developed by the team of Dr. Jay Belsky (Queen Mary University, London) and Dr. Michael Pluess (Birkbeck university, London) to explain this phenomenon.  Over the decades they have been researching in their fields they have uncovered a wealth of evidence to support the notion that innate sensitivity in individuals is not just a vulnerability, as was thought for a long time, but can also be a huge advantage.

Essentially what they have found is that Highly Sensitive People are more sensitive to their experiences and environments, both good and bad, than non-highly sensitive people are to the same experiences and environments.  In the case of children, what this has shown is that whilst it is true that Highly Sensitive Children can be more vulnerable to mental health issues as adults than non-Highly Sensitive Children, this is true only where they have had negative or adverse experiences.  For those who are brought up in ‘good enough’ environments, where they have been parented and cared for in a supportive and sensitive way, they are more likely to thrive than their non-HSC counterparts, becoming very resilient adults.

For an explanation from the men themselves take a look at this clip from Sensitive, The Untold Story….

The writer David Dodds has reflected this theory as follows:  He says “Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care.

flower-179004_640It’s clear then that parents and carers, including teachers, with whom our children spend large parts of their day, are at the absolute core of ensuring that our HSCs receive the sensitive ‘greenhouse’ care to help them thrive.  Moreover, it also seems clear that the efforts made to keep the greenhouse in good working order is well worth the effort involved, in a way that is not so much the case for non-HSCs.

My Orchid’s Tale

18 months ago I moved my son from a school that just wasn’t working for him, it felt more like a danger-zone than a greenhouse, and he was wilting before our eyes.  There hasn’t been a single day since that I haven’t marvelled at how much he has grown in confidence, and how much he has truly flourished in his new environment.   This is in no insignificant part down to the incredible teacher he has who is hugely committed and works her socks off every single day to try to support each individual child in her class in the way that is best for them and that allows them to shine in their own way, whether that be a Broadway spotlight or a lamp-lit desk (Susan Cain).

boy-984293_640For him, this support has taken the form of subtle and gentle encouragement and reassurance.  It has meant acceptance that he finds standing up in front of the class hard, and that when he does it, he might wobble, but being kindly supported through the wobble with compassion, so that he sees it’s OK to wobble, but also that he can manage his emotions through these times and ‘succeed’.  As a consequence he has been able to play his guitar in public; he has reached the semi-final of a speech competition; he voluntarily speaks up in class (when he feels he has something to say); he is one of the Peer Mentors at the school, helping other children resolve their differences in the playground.

This is in such stark contrast to his previous school and teachers, who regularly forced him into the spotlight leading him to feel inadequate when his discomfort meant he couldn’t ‘perform’: Each occasion eroding his self-esteem and confidence, and increasing his sense of shame, making him terrified of putting himself ‘out there’.

For me this transition has been the perfect living illustration of the theory of “Differential Susceptibility” and why it is so very important that we change the minds of those who don’t ‘get it’.

Sadly, the story doesn’t end there.board-361516_640

The woes of Standard Assessment Tests (SATs)

I am now facing a new threat to my Orchid’s well-being, and that is the ‘hot-housing’ of SATs preparation for the “all new, singing, dancing curriculum”.    The seemingly constant testing we subject our young children to, from Yr. 2 onward, has already taken some of the joy out of teaching for the teachers, and out of learning for the children.  In addition this year, the bar has been raised exponentially, but no-one as yet knows what the new pass threshold is.  For our HSCs this is particularly relevant for the following reasons:

  • Highly Sensitive Children tend to be very aware of the standards ‘expected’ of them and also tend to be very conscientious and want to do their very best.  Consequently they are prone to exacting very high standards of themselves, and can develop perfectionist tendencies before we have even realised it.  This makes them prone to anxiety about being tested.  This year the pressure feels even greater, because there is a lot of uncertainly about the SATs: what will the final tests look like? What is a ‘pass’? How will we know if a child has done more than just ‘meet the expected standard’?  What happens if they fail?  This uncertainty is causing added anxiety for my HSC, who burst into tears when he got 86% on a practice paper, because he couldn’t know whether that would be enough to pass or not – he was aiming for 100% to be safe.
  • Highly Sensitive Children are quick to pick up on the emotions of others.  The teachers in our primary schools, particularly those teaching Yr6, are probably facing one of the the greatest pressures they have ever faced in their careers.  They are being required to implement a new curriculum that has taken away a lot of their flexibility to teach in their own uniquely engaging and creative ways, and is turning them into ‘auditors and compliance monitors’ who are required to follow a ‘script’.  Except at the moment, 9 weeks away from the formal SATs testing, the script is still being written, and the standards they are working to are still not wholly clear.  It would take a superhuman teacher to not feel and be exuding some stress in response to the pressure, and an unusual HSC not to pick up on this.
  • Add to this, that HSCs are well aware that even though people may tell them that the tests don’t matter, they do matter to someone.  They matter to the school,  because they matter to the government which places a mandatory requirement on the school. HSCs don’t like letting people down, so they will strive to do their best, working blind, even when they are told the tests really don’t matter – because there is incongruence between what they hear, and what they feel – they see through the platitudes.
  • Highly Sensitive Children also tend to listen well and respond to creative teaching – something that the system is making increasingly difficult for our teachers.  The repetition they have to ensure because other children don’t listen as well, and the more ‘rote’ approach being required of an increasing amount of the learning, is a ‘switch off’ for many HSCs, who can easily become disengaged and ‘bored’ with their learning, because they ‘got it’ 15 minutes ago.

So my personal challenge as a parent is to ensure that now, more than ever before, I am being super-sensitive in my parenting to compensate for the insensitivities of our education system that are making it more and more difficult for teachers like Tom’s current class teacher to shine and really add value to those malleable children in their class.  Ultimately this is causing increasing numbers of these amazing teachers to leave the profession, leaving our children more and more in the hands of teachers who are more comfortable operating within the ‘script’ – which may be OK for the 80%, but will be a potential disaster for the Highly Sensitive Children in the class who will be pulled away from their lamp-lit desk and increasingly forced into the Broadway spotlight, where they will be like a rabbit in the headlights and just find it so much harder to thrive.Rabbit-in-headlights3


This concerns me, does it concern you?  We’d love to hear your comments.  If you want to find out more about differential susceptibility? Come along to one of our Workshops !


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