When I think of the average Boys & Girls Club, my mind goes straight to the Gamesroom. Often the heart of the Clubhouse. Loud, chaotic, busy, and fun! The next thing my mind goes to? How 8 year old Sarah would have HATEDDDDDDD the Gamesroom.
The reason? 8 year old me was (and 30-something year old me still is) an introvert. And I’m not alone. Experts estimate that 30-50% of the population are introverts like me. So if we can assume that at least 1/3 of our Club members are also introverts, how can we make sure we are meeting their needs? And what even is introversion anyway?
Introverts are people who prefer calmer, minimally stimulating environments. They are most alive and capable when they are in a low-key setting, which allows them to think deeply and connect with one or a few people. Introverts tend to feel drained after socializing with others, even when they enjoy it, and need to withdraw and be alone to regain their energy. The opposite of introverts are extroverts, who prefer to be around others and need a lot of mental stimulation. This quick video explains more:
People often confuse introversion with shyness, but they aren’t the same thing. According to author Susan Cain, who literally wrote the bestseller on introverts, says
Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.
The United States in particular tends to place a high value on traits that fall more on the extroverted side of the scale. Things like charisma, assertiveness, quick-thinking, competitiveness, and being a social butterfly. While none of these are negative, and all can be valuable, they are going to look really different in introverts. Plus? Introverts have traits that everyone else should learn too. Things like:
- Deep thinking
- Being a good listener
- Ability to focus
- Being observant
Most schools and workplaces are designed for extroverts, and many afterschool settings follow the same pattern. We think fun = LOUD and crazy and we design spaces to be big and all of the stimulation and we pack in as many kids as our ratios will allow. We do everything in groups and teams and the kids who are the pushiest tend to rise to the top. A lot of it is due to literal space and staff factors- there are a lot of kids to serve every day! But if we aren’t careful, introverted youth can begin to feel like they don’t belong, and that there is something wrong with them.
So what can we do? Here are five tips for making your Club a place where introverts can thrive:
- Design activities that include varying size groups, including solo work.
Introverts tend to work best on their own, or in pairs or small groups. When groups get too large, they can fade into the background. By sometimes having young people work alone or in pairs, introverts will be able to step into leadership roles. Plus, this gives all youth a chance to problem-solve on their own and not always rely on others. An effective technique with introverts is Think-Pair-Share, where youth first think about a question on their own and write, then discuss their ideas with a partner, and then the partners share with the whole group. When you do have group work, use a grouping strategy so that youth get the experience of working with different people, and so introverts don’t fear being the last one picked. Find lots of grouping strategies on BGCA’s YD Toolbox app. Also consider using digital tools to engage discussion.
- Give youth choices about the kinds of activities they do, and the way in which they do them.
As a kid, I LOVED to read and write. Seriously, I’d much rather write a essay by myself than build a diorama with other people. If you are doing an activity where the goal is to learn about dinosaurs, can’t that be accomplished with either of these projects? Sure! When we can give young people choices about their learning, it will be motivating and give them a sense of ownership. According to the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, youth can make choices about the activities that are offered, how or when tasks are carried out, about roles, materials, and more. Choices can be large or small, and involve options (a, b, or c) or be open-ended.
- Create spaces where youth can escape for some quiet.
While we’ve mentioned creating cool-down spaces in the Club for youth with Autism or as a place to help calm down when angry, quiet spaces can be safe havens for introverts as well. After playing enthusiastically in the Gym or a long day at school, an introvert may benefit from quiet time before they transition to another active space. Or there may be a mini-Sarah who just wants to spend a day reading a book sometimes! Giving introverted youth the chance to escape for a bit will help them refuel for the rest of the day. This doesn’t always require a dedicated physical space. When I was Education Director at Boys & Girls Clubs of the Smoky Mountains, during summer programming I would get some of the 5-8 year olds in my room each day for a quick 30 minutes during lunch rotations. During that time, we sat in the room with the lights low and I read a chapter book aloud. It gave everyone a chance to be still for a bit (some kids fell asleep which was also fine!) and to increase their literacy skills.
I recently visited the Eastside Branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Tarrant County, and they had these amazing cubbies in their Learning Center, perfect for introverting in while still being under staff supervision:
- Be intentional about building relationships with introverted youth.
The loudest kids often get the most attention. We know it happens, but it can leave quieter youth behind. Building supportive relationships between adults and young people is so important that we included it in our Five Key Elements for Positive Youth Development, but when it comes to introverts, you might have to get creative. Offer program choices that are inherently calmer and give opportunities for discussion, like book clubs or logic puzzles. Play a game of chess. Ask them to tell you about their favorite hobbies, and then listen (they’ll know it if you aren’t). Don’t invade their space, but be sure to let them know that you are there. Open-ended questions and time to think before answering are ways to unlock meaningful conversation.
- Respect the qualities of and recognize the unique contributions of introverted youth.
As I said earlier, introverted youth bring a LOT to the table! Be sure that your recognition strategies (another one of the Five Key Elements) include encouraging the kinds of positive traits of introverted youth. This will not only help introverts feel validated, it will let your extroverts know that being quiet can be awesome too. Whether formal or informal, recognize qualities like problem-solving, listening, and thoughtfulness. This guide from the Quiet Schools Network is designed for classroom teachers writing report card comments, but can spark ideas for things to recognize. And be sure to find out *how* youth like to be recognized. An introvert may not always want to have to come up to the stage to receive an award and have their photo taken in front of everyone. A note or an aside during programming can make them feel just as appreciated.
Introverts and extroverts need each other. I need my extro friends to help me take risks, let my hair down, and move from thought to action. But I can help my extro friends to consider other viewpoints, have deep conversations, and I can always give them lots of book and podcast recommendations. It is our task as youth development professionals to help both introverts and extroverts feel confident in their abilities, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and respect people who aren’t like them.
I encourage you to dig a little deeper by watching one of the most-viewed TED Talks of all-time, The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain, who I referenced earlier. She passionately shares the gifts of introversion, and how we make the world a better place. Consider watching this video with your staff, and discussing how to build introvert-friendly spaces and activities in your Club.
How do you help introverted youth to thrive? What are your best tips for encouraging deep thinking with young people? Share by commenting below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or by emailing ClubXBlog@bgca.org