The subject of sensitivity is described in the psychological literature in different ways. Developmental psychology emphasizes child sensitivity first and foremost as readiness or susceptibility to specific influences, which aim to develop certain functions or to perfect certain skills. In this case, sensitivity is described with reference to the interaction with the environment, which involves the child’s traits, environmental resources, as well as the quality of the child’s relationship with the environment (Brzezińska 2003).
High sensitivity in children may be perceived by parents and teachers as a dysfunction or a deficit. A child whose many reactions differ from those of its peers becomes a concern and parents may worry about its ability to cope with the reality of preschool and school. However, high sensitivity ought be seen as the child’s individual resource, its potential, indeed some papers describe it as being an advantage (Belsky, Pluess 2009), whose appearance requires the provision of adequate supporting conditions.
One particular proposition is a concept proposed by Elaine Aron, who has promoted the term Highly Sensitive Child to describe a group of children whose functioning is described by the biologically determined by and modified by the environment trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity. In other words, Sensory Processing Sensitivity is a feature of temperament, and children with a high level of it were identified by Aron as Highly Sensitive Children.
Benefits and drawbacks that may be associated with high sensitivity
Numerous studies have demonstrated that high sensitivity itself is not a disorder, however, in negative, unfavourable conditions it may be correlated with numerous difficulties. The higher level expression of a trait may be related to psychopathology. The research carried out concerned the SPS relationship with (selected issues are presented): internalization problems, fear, increased levels of stress, the physical symptoms of poor health (with somatic illnesses), depression (a.o.Bakker, Molding 2012; Benham 2006; Boterberg, Warreyn 2016; Liss, Mailloux, Erchull 2008; Yano, Oishi 2018). It should also be noted that only some of these studies take into account the effects of interaction of specific difficulties and disorders with the SPS feature itself. In the studies in which the direction of the interactions was controlled, the role of interaction was confirmed (Greven et al. 2019).
Highly sensitive children are described as reactive, easily prone to stress, shy, inhibited in their behaviour. However, in a favourable environment, highly sensitive children perform better than their peers: they achieve better grades in school, have more constructive moral attitudes, higher levels of social competency, higher levels of self-regulation and a greater sense of security resulting from experiencing the love of their families (Aron 2002; Pluess, Belsky2013).
Studies concerning environmental sensitivity also emphasize the fact that SPS is important not only in achieving an understanding of maladaptation, the tendency to experience difficulties or the risk of developing subsequent dysfunctions but also for the understanding of optimal development or even the exceptional development of potential in a positive environment. High sensitivity does not only coexist with the tendency to experience difficulties (it is not just a risk factor for mental problems). Jay Belsky and Michael Pluess (2009) highlighted the selectivity of treating high sensitivity as a risk factor. They wrote about the variation in the level of influence of the environment and about the trait, commonly known as sensitivity, being an advantage, they were inclined to regard it in terms of resilience. Michael Pluesscompared the reactions of highly sensitive people and people who are not highly sensitive, and arrived at the conclusion that mentally resilient (less sensitive) people are influenced to a lesser degree by either bad or positive events (Aron 2002).
The research suggests that SPS is also associated with:
- the positive aspects of functioning, such as the ability to induce a positive mood; includinganincreased positive affect following positive mood induction (Lionetti et al.: 2018),
- increased social competencies in interaction and developing positive parenting styles (Slagt et al.2017),
- reductions in the incidence of depression, violence and victimization as a result of positive intervention (Pluess, Boniwell 2015),
- increased activation in the major reward centres of the brain in response to positive stimuli, such as the smiling face of a partner or generally positive emotions (Acevedo et al. 2014),
- higher levels of creativity (Bridges, Schendan2018),
- the development of talents (Gere, Capps, Mitchell, Grubbs2009; Mullet,Rinn, Jett, Nyikos 2017).
Children's development environment
The environment in which highly sensitive children develop is particularly important.
Particular attention should be paid to the role of the family environment and the school environment in the quality of functioning of highly sensitive children. Research concerning the quality of the educational environment and sensitivity indicates the occurrence of interaction. The research (Aron, Aron 1997) shows that highly sensitive adults who have an unhappy childhood perception, scored higher in the area of negative emotionality and social introversion. At the same time, highly sensitive adults who experienced a happy childhood did not differ in the severity of those features, from the population of non-highly sensitive individuals.
The studies of Boyce and colleagues conducted with the participation of highly reactive children indicate that HS children in a stressful home and school environment are more likely to become sick and suffer more injuries. However, in a relatively less stressful environment, they suffer from injuries less often than their peers. He described these children as orchids, and non-highly sensitive children as dandelions (Ellis, Boyce 2008).
Subsequent research relevant to planning activities to support highly sensitive children concerns their functioning in the school environment.
Teresa C. Tillmann (2016) points out that sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), as a temperament feature that is associated with a deeper processing of sensory information, as well as behavioural responses to environmental stimulation and new situations, plays an important role in the educational context. Therefore, she conducted research with 456 students from grades 7 to 9 from two different types of German schools. The students answered questions related to the new version of the German HSP scale. The questionnaire used was enriched with additional variables: subjective school-related values or school-related self-efficiency. The results of the research conducted indicate, among other findings, the negative relationship between SPS and school-related effectiveness or student ratings. Despite some critical remarks regarding methodological problems, the current findings greatly enrich the existing literature concerning SPS in the school context and have important implications, especially in the current debate, about the need for an education based on the requirements of individual students (Tillmann 2016; Tillmann, Matany, &Duttweiler 2018).
Achermann (2013, in: Tillman 2016) examined how highly sensitive adults perceive their time spent at school. He analysed key aspects of the teaching process, checking what in retrospect was helpful in achieving school success. The results were similar to those obtained by Aron (2002). Research results indicate that:
- most HSP do not experience any school problems and bad grades because of the deeper content processing
- the majority of highly sensitive people are perfectionists and expect a lot from each other
- preferred learning environment and atmosphere: a quiet working atmosphere was important for proper focus and work; HSC prefer teaching through direct individual instructions, they do not like to appear in front of a group – however, if group work is used and preferred by the teacher, HSP prefer working with friends rather than with people who are unknown to them
- the physical environment and its aspects, such as a colourful room, too much light or similar features also play an important role
- the behaviour of HSP children resulting from overstimulation may be interpreted by the teacher as low motivation or attention deficits.
- new and unknown situations make the HSC feel uncomfortable
- they prefer repetitive, structured lessons, rules and rituals; in unclear situations, without structure, HSP people become nervous, full of anxiety and it is difficult for them to maintain their balance
- they are often tired after school
- social life at school: close relationships are important for HSP, but they prefer a small circle of friends; larger groups and large spaces (like a school playground) are perceived negatively
- conflicts have a negative impact on HSC, they may result in difficulties with maintaining their attention during lessons, and even later when they are already at home.
Implications for education and parenting
From the perspective of the presented research and conceptual papers one may assume that high sensitivity represents a huge potential for children, which under supporting conditions will work for the child’s benefit, alternatively, under detrimental conditions it will turn against the child and have a negative influence on the child’s functioning. A highly sensitive and reactive nervous system may under beneficial conditions support the development of creativity, intuition and unconventional thinking. Under detrimental conditions, it may become overloaded and lead to disorganized behaviour, diminishing the child’s productivity and lowering the child’s self-esteem.
Creating the appropriate conditions for the development of a highly sensitive child requires parents and teachers to understand the child’s needs and to help them to develop in four key areas: the development of self-esteem, a reduction in the feeling of shame, discipline, and the skilful acknowledgement of one’s sensitivity (Aron 2002).
Self-esteem in highly sensitive children is usually inadvertently lowered. Susceptibility to criticism and a harsh critique of oneself are two factors shaping low self-esteem. A characteristic prediction of negative scenarios makes them look similar to people suffering from depression (Taylor, Brown 1988). Key tasks for both parents and teachers in this regard ought to be centred around helping the child to raise its self-esteem through acknowledgement and praise given for even the most inconsequential (from the parent’s or teacher’s perspective) accomplishments and initiatives, the use of a careful choice of words when giving feedback, and an emphasis of the child’s strengths.
Highly sensitive children have a particular propensity for experiencing shame and feeling guilty. For this reason, it is necessary to avoid situations, which may give ground to the growth of the feeling of shame and self-blame. Highly sensitive children blame themselves for difficult situations more often than their peers. More situations cause shame. Both the parent and the teacher ought to make every possible effort not to put the child into situations, which make them feel shame or are perceived by the child as caused by her or him.
Research has confirmed that highly sensitive children internalize a moral code in a natural way. They find it more difficult to accept situations in which they are engaging in an activity associated with disapproval (e.g. breaking a toy) and have the feeling of not meeting other people’s expectations (Kochanska, Thompson 1998). Because of this, parents and teachers must use their imagination in creative ways to avoid situations of punishment or scolding that may be perceived by the child as too harsh and will in turn, fail to have the desired effect. Highly sensitive children are quicker to give in to the feeling of discomfort and lose patience much faster, and when this happens, they find it harder to obey parents or teachers. The prevention of such states is not a sign of yielding to the child’s whims but a form of meeting his or her needs (Aron 2002).
The fourth key dimension of a highly sensitive child is an age-appropriate conversation about high sensitivity. Understanding their own sensitivity is not only conducive to the child’s development of high self-esteem, but it also makes it possible to establish limits. Talking about the topic will enable the child to develop satisfying relationships without fear of rejection, with full awareness of the right to not undertake certain activities or to participate in those situations, which make them feel uncomfortable. In the process of collisions with obstacles-boundaries that arise in children’s lives in the form of norms and rules, children strive to obtain some information about potential boundaries and the possibilities for their own influence. Having overcome an obstacle, children increase their “I” level, transforming the negative energy of a barrier into their own positive potential (Nikolskaya 2008).
In summary, it should be stated that the most appropriate forms of support for teachers and educators in preparing them for work with highly sensitive children are:
- equipping them with knowledge in the field of high sensitivity – helping them to understand how highly sensitive children differ from other children and what their needs are
- equipping them with tools – specific styles and methods of working with highly sensitive children (familiarizing them with, among others, elements of temperamental based intervention and self-regulation, somatic education, mindfulness)
- providing access to specialists and practitioners supporting HSC children thereby enabling mutual learning and the comprehensive support of highly sensitive children.
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This article will be published in the Issues in Early Education (2020), on the https://czasopisma.bg.ug.edu.pl/index.php/pwe/issue/view/308 website and it is posted on the blog with the consent of the authors, co-organizing the E-MOTION project. The article was prepared by: Monika Baryła-Matejczuk, Małgorzata Artymiak, Rosario Ferrer-Cascales, Moises Betancort