School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

Sensitivity to School

Background

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

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.

Sensitivity Image

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 study

The main goal of the study is to develop new measures of child sensitivity and to observe sensitive children’s development in the first two years of primary school. 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.

1st Assessment2nd Assessment3rd Assessment4th Assessment5th Assessment
October 2019 April 2020 October 2020 January 2021 May 2021

Parent questionnaires

Teacher questionnaire

Class observation

Parent questionnaires

Teacher questionnaire

Class observation

Sensitivity observation

Parent questionnaires

Teacher questionnaire

Class observation

Sensitivity observation

Parent questionnaires

Teacher questionnaire

Class observation

Child questionnaires

Parent questionnaires

Teacher questionnaire

Class observation

Sensitivity observation

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.

Benefits of the Study          

The development of school-specific 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 which will provide guidelines on how to identify sensitive children with the help of the newly developed 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.

The research team

This innovative and new study is led by an international team of developmental and educational psychology experts from different institutions.

NameInstitution 
Dr Michele Egloff University of Applied Science and Art of Southern Switzerland Egloff
Dr Luciana Castelli University of Applied Science and Art of Southern Switzerland Castelli
Alina Vanini University of Applied Science and Art of Southern Switzerland Vanini
Professor Michael Pluess Queen Mary University of London Pluess 
Dr Francesa Lionetti Queen Mary University of London Lionetti 
Dr Kathleen Rudasill Virginia Commonwealth University Rudasill 
Dr Robert Pianta University of Virginia Pianta 

Contact

If you would like more information, please contact Dr. Francesca Lionetti, Queen Mary University of London, at f.lionetti@qmul.ac.uk or Dr. Luciana Castelli and/or Ms Alina Vanini, Scuola Universitaria Professionale della Svizzera Italiana, at luciana.castelli@supsi.ch, alina.vanini@supsi.ch

News

We are currently presenting the research project at the Parents' Evening events. We look forward to seeing you there.

References

  1. Brendgen, M., B. Wanner, and F. Vitaro, Verbal abuse by the teacher and child adjustment from kindergarten through grade 6. Pediatrics, 2006. 117(5): p. 1585-1598.
  2. Chetty, R., N. Hendren, and L.F. Katz, The effects of exposure to better neighborhoods on children: New evidence from the Moving to Opportunity experiment. The American Economic Review, 2016. 106(4): p. 855-902.
  3. Chetty, R., et al., How does your kindergarten classroom affect your earnings? Evidence from Project STAR. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2011. 126(4): p. 1593-1660.
  4. Hamre, B.K. and R.C. Pianta, Can instructional and emotional support in the first‐grade classroom make a difference for children at risk of school failure? Child development, 2005. 76(5): p. 949-967.
  5. Silver, R.B., et al., Trajectories of classroom externalizing behavior: Contributions of child characteristics, family characteristics, and the teacher–child relationship during the school transition. Journal of School Psychology, 2005. 43(1): p. 39-60.
  6. Pluess, M., Individual Differences in Environmental Sensitivity. Child Development Perspectives, 2015. 9(3): p. 138-143.
  7. Slagt, M., et al., Differences in sensitivity to parenting depending on child temperament: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 2016. 142(10): p. 1068.
  8. Lionetti, F., et al., Dandelions, Tulips and Orchids: evidence for the existence of low-sensitive, medium-sensitive, and high-sensitive individuals Translational Psychiatry, 2018. 8(24).
  9. Pluess, M., et al., Environmental Sensitivity in Children: Development of the Highly Sensitive Child Scale and Identification of Sensitivity Groups. Developmental Psychology, 2017.