Richard Howlin PhD

Using the Foundations of Mindfulness & Neuropsychology in Supporting Individuals of all ages.

The Introverted Child

It was originally the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung who coined the terms Extraversion and Introversion. These two traits were part of his larger theory of psychological type and almost a hundred years later his theory still influences how many psychologists describe natural variations in learning style. While introverts more often prefer the inner world of thoughts and ideas, extraverts are drawn to the outer world of people and events.  But how and why are these two traits important in our understanding of child behavior?  Introversion and extraversion represent two fundamentally different ways of seeing and understanding and the world and these qualities of mind have a strong influence on both the social and academic pathways of development. While introverts are more drawn to the quiet world of introspection and the inner landscape of thoughts, extraverts thrive on outer social engagement and action.  Both qualities represent fundamentally important ways of processing information and engaging with the world. In this theory, children (and adults) are viewed as being dominant in one or the other trait.  As inborn qualities, introversion and extraversion are equally represented in the population. 

Jung described how these two complementary qualities find expression on both individual and larger group and societal levels. Extraverted and introverted styles can be dominant in larger social networks such as schools, companies and culture. A culture benefits from a healthy balance of these qualities. They both represent important perspectives.

Jung also viewed psychological traits as existing on a continuum, ranging from moderate to  These inborn tendencies exist on a continuum and can range from a more moderate to extreme expression in a child. An example would be a naturally gregarious extraverted child who can also appreciate the time spent alone in more reflective fashion (moderate) versus one who appears to be permanently "on the go" often distracted, requiring constant social stimulation.

In an interview in the 1950s, Jung was asked to comment on the issue of cultural dominance and differences in psychological traits. He described the United States as being very dominant in extraversion.  Now, in the 21st century, with the fetish-like obsession with celebrity and social media. who would disagree? Without a doubt there is a strong extraverted bias in this society. It could be argued that introversion and introverted qualities are neglected under the “noise” of such a raw extraverted societal trend. However, in recent years there has been an encouraging number of first-person accounts written by talented and successful introverted individuals. These books and articles typically describe experiences and struggles in workplace situations coupled with practical solutions. Significantly, they also describe how strange and out-of-place they often felt as children while adjusting to school and summer camps. Most importantly, these authors also emphasize the importance of introverted qualities in the context of society often obsessed with "action" and social networking.          

The Quiet Learners

A typical introverted child is rarely recognizable in the early phases of developmental. (0-3). It is usually between preschool and kindergarten one can begin to observe the emergence of introverted traits. Introverted children are typically the ones who value the quiet company of books and interests. They quietly and eagerly absorb information and then carefully process this raw data, forming ideas and meaning. The introverted student often requires more time as he or she engages in this interior learning process before responding.  Once satisfied they are willing and able to share their ideas with others.  It is very important for the introverted child to be allowed such time and then receive the due attention as they express their ideas or stories. In my therapeutic work with children, I have occasionally been appropriately reminded to "please let me finish"!  At such times I can easily fall into my own extraverted bias in wanting to move things along more quickly.  Usually, especially in childhood, this kind of feedback is unhelpful and unwelcome.  In the middle school years the introverted child will have many opportunities to learn how to adjust as situations demand.   


Extraverts                                                          Introverts

Think out loud                                                   Think things through before speaking

Jump into new social situations                        Wait and watch before getting involved

Are more concerned about how                        Are more concerned about how others affect                                                       they affect                                                                         

Like variety and action                                      Like to focus on one thing or person                 

Are more outwardly enthusiastic                       Are more private                                                                               

More expressive                                               More Reserved                          

Are energized by interaction                             Are energized by introspection

Are life’s generalists                                          Are life’s specialists

Are stressed by lack of contact                         Require frequent “breaks’ from interaction

May struggle with                                             Generally focused and do not enjoy concentration                                                    being interrupted

(After P.Tieger, Nurture by Nature, 1997)


Introverted children prefer more solitude and can become exhausted when exposed excessively to social interactions. Although they may enjoy social contact, unlike extraverts, introverts may often seek refuge in a book or hobby to recharge their batteries. Other children may find introverts harder to get to know and at times may misinterpret their introverted behavior as unfriendly or withholding.  Such misinterpretations of introverted behavior can also be seen in parents and teachers.

Peter’s teacher and his mother both feared that he could be on the autistic spectrum due to his lack of emotional expression and preference for alone time. In observing the situation more closely, an evaluating psychologist noted the somewhat loud and extremely interactive structure of the classroom. The children were often split into several large learning groups throughout the day apparently to support the development of social intelligence as they learn. Given the general classroom structure, these groups were characteristically animated and expressive with less attention given to structure. In the follow-up meeting, these observations were tactfully explained to Peter's 3rd-grade teacher and his parents. Interestingly, Peter's father appeared to be quite introverted at the meeting and after hearing the psychologist's comments proclaimed that he had failed to see any problem in his son's behavior!

Classroom adjustments for Peter

Given the openness of the teacher, a brief tutorial was given on typology including the constructive identification of the teacher’s extraversion.  
The teacher was able to identify other possibly introverted students in the classroom.
Provisions were made for quiet study times during the school day for Peter and other children if they so wished.
The size of classroom study groups was adjusted to allow students to opt for a smaller (2-4) or larger group.      
From this example it can be seen why introverted children (depending on the child and level of introversion) are more likely to be suspected of having a social impairment over their extraverted cousins. Introverted children should be encouraged to engage in group activities; however such activities should include options that allow introverted children to engage more easily. Similarly, extraverted children can benefit from regular periods of involving calm, isolated study.  Such opportunities allow students to develop flexibility and ultimately become more effective introverts and extraverts. The key to recognizing and supporting natural introverted characteristics lies in the awareness of the surrounding adults.

Socially, introverted children prefer having a small group of like-minded friends. Some may be content with one best friend, one who is often minded and shares similar interests. Usually introverted students are satisfied completely with this arrangement. Introverted children can display some level of awkwardness in larger social situations. This is in part due to their slowness in responding, especially in situations where extraversion is dominant.  In general, an acceptable educational goal would be to provide learning-friendly classroom conditions for both introverted and extraverted styles. By middle school, children would benefit from information regarding the reality of learning differences, supporting greater self-awareness.

Ideally our home and classroom environments would reflect an awareness of these natural variations in children. It is not uncommon to find sensitive parents who appear instinctively tuned to the natural variations of their children. Yet a more explicit dialogue is needed to address the validity and practical implications of typology. Meanwhile, disseminating knowledge can increase the general awareness of introversion and introverted children. Such a course correction could serve toward restoring the necessary balance. In the American classroom and society at large, the recognition of introversion is long overdue.