How Introverted Kids Can Practice Self-Advocacy

Dear Priscilla,

I have a 15-year-old son, who is deeply introverted and twice exceptional. His most comfortable time is being home with his cat and reading (smile). He is finishing his first year at a small, private high school in a new community.  He takes his time and is selective in connecting with his peers and usually feels more comfortable connecting with adults. The school day is like work for him. He does well but needs his downtime at home.

Expeditions are a part of the curriculum at this school. These trips can be short backpacking or camping trips or 3-4 week international trips. The first trip we did with this school, his Dad went as a trip chaperone, which allowed our son to “check out” from the group as needed to recharge, without the pressure of needing to advocate for himself. But the school is pushing back about parents going on trips, and even though we have talked with them about meeting the needs of our quiet child, they do not have specific strategies in place, and extroverts are leading and designing the trips.

I would appreciate any advice you have about specific strategies we can suggest and your thoughts on how much we should push our son to “adapt and advocate for himself” versus asking the school to accommodate.

Hopeful Mom

Dear Hopeful Mom,

Smile indeed to your son’s happy time reading at home with his cat—sounds heavenly to my introverted son as well!

School overnight expeditions or more extended trips can be a nightmare for introverts. There’s 24/7 together time; traveling on crowded buses, vans, or airplanes; eating, working, and sleeping in close quarters with others; and an emphasis on teamwork, collaboration, and group activities. Often, there is little to no private or alone time and very little downtime. I’m impressed your son has gotten through as well as he has!

That being said, I do understand the school’s resistance to having parents as trip chaperones and wanting your son to learn to employ effective self-advocacy skills; this is especially important now that he’s 15. Lessening your son’s reliance on parental intervention, encouraging his independence, and strengthening his ability to advocate for himself are all good things.  

Towards that end, here’s what I’d recommend. Have your son generate a list of specific strategies and accommodations that would help make each trip or expedition more bearable and more rewarding for him. Remind him to balance his own needs and desires with those of the larger group and to make sure the accommodations he requests don’t inadvertently harm the group or undermine the school’s learning goals.

The accommodations will vary according to the nature of the trip, but here are some possibilities:

  • the ability to eat one or more meals at a remove from the group (the din and social demands of lunch or dinner conversation can be unbearable for introverts),
  • the use of noise-canceling headphones at especially noisy times,
  • the option of not participating in every last group activity and instead taking some recharge time in a peaceful setting,
  • the possibility of fulfilling trip requirements in alternative ways (like a written reflection on an activity rather than an oral presentation, or solo rather than group work on a project).  

Then have him present his list to a school counselor or trip organizer well in advance of the trip dates. After his conversation with school officials, have him reflect on the discussion and assess the outcome.

Did he feel listened to and respected? Were the administrators and trip leaders willing to be somewhat flexible and accommodating? Did they allow him to opt out of certain activities or build restorative niches into the day?

Alternatively, did the school seem impatient with or dismissive of his concerns and wishes? Was there any give, or were school officials intransigent in their insistence that he do what all other kids on the trip will be doing?

In all honesty, any school that relies heavily on group expeditions as part of its regular curriculum, that requires participation in such expeditions, and that doesn’t allow introverts to opt out of aspects of the trip experience does not sound like the right educational environment for a “deeply introverted” child. If the school is inflexible about the requirements, I would strongly recommend looking for a different school. That’s not to say that the school is at fault or deficient, but that the fit is simply not right. Your son should be in a school that at the very least doesn’t have a rigid extrovert ethos or structure its requirements in ways that make him consistently uncomfortable or are repeatedly at cross purposes with his temperament. But even if you do decide this school isn’t the best fit, learning to self-advocate will serve him well in all future aspects of his life.

I wish your son the best of luck in navigating this tricky terrain!