The school environment is important for the positive development of children with long-term influences lasting to adulthood [1-5]. However, what has not been considered yet in educational research is that children differ in their temperament with some children being particularly sensitive to their environment [6, 7]. Children that are more sensitive tend to be generally more affected by what they experience, which also includes the schools that they are going to. Although we know that sensitivity plays an important role in children’s development, our understanding of children’s sensitivity in the context of school is surprisingly limited.
Highly sensitive children are incredibly responsive to their environment, including the brightness of light, sounds, smells or people’s mood. They think deeply, tend to be diligent and often demonstrate advanced empathy and compassion at an early age. However, sensitivity has also a dark-side: these children tend to be shy and can become more easily overwhelmed by new situations, sudden changes, and emotional distress of others. But being highly sensitive is not unusual. According to the latest research up to 30% of healthy children fall into this category [8, 9] and most of them develop into happy and healthy adults if they grow up in a supportive context.
Although we do know how important the school environment is for most children, we do not know much about children’s sensitivity in the school context. For example, what role does sensitivity play in children’s development and success in school? And would sensitive children benefit from specific educational settings and practices? These important questions can be answered with high quality research. A better understanding of sensitive children’s behaviour and experience of the school context may have important implications for the way teachers organise the learning environment and help them to adapt their teaching approach to cater for sensitive children, so that each child can benefit equally from their educational environment. The outcome of the planned research study will contribute to training materials for teachers and equip them with new tools and information about sensitive children.
The main goal of the study is to test new measures of child sensitivity and to observe sensitive children’s development in the first years of primary school in several schools based in and around London, UK. The new measures will enable both teachers and educational psychologists to reliably assess children’s sensitivity. The observational research on sensitive children will provide teachers with important information on how to understand and adapt the educational environment to the specific needs of sensitive children. Additionally, we aim to investigate the cognitive factors that are associated with sensitivity in children.
Sensitivity assessment interview
Cognitive tasks for children
The study is funded by a research grant from Jacobs Foundation, a renowned Swiss foundation that aims to invest in young people’s development and future so that they become socially responsible and productive members of society.
The evaluation of new sensitivity measures and identification of school aspects that are important for sensitive children’s academic, social and emotional development will advance our understanding of what matters for sensitive children at school. The new knowledge may contribute to the design of new teaching methods and adaptation of the school context to the specific needs of sensitive children. The research findings will be summarised and compiled in a booklet for teachers (and parents) which will provide guidelines on how to identify sensitive children with the help of the tested sensitivity measures and how best to support the socio-emotional and academic development of sensitive children in school, with the aim to influence both teaching practice and educational policy in the long-term.
Besides scientific publications, research findings will also be disseminated locally through public lectures and workshops aimed at communicating research results in an accessible way to teachers and educational experts who contributed to the data collection as well as interested parents.
This innovative and new study is led by an international team of developmental and educational psychology experts from different institutions.
If you would like more information about the study, please contact Jenni Kahkonen at firstname.lastname@example.org.