Do you have a student who hates bright lights and loud noises, is worried about making mistakes, is very tenderhearted, and has a hard time adjusting to change?
If so, then you are probably working with a highly sensitive person.
Dr. Elaine Aron, who has done the most research on highly sensitive people, estimates that as many as one in five individuals fit the “highly sensitive” definition.
As a highly sensitive person myself, I have experience with this!
I know what it’s like to be easily overwhelmed and overstimulated, sensitive to change and criticism, and also sensitive to the feelings and emotional well-being of others.
It comes with some challenges, but also a lot of joys.
Here are my five best tips for teaching highly sensitive students.
Keep Your Studio Calm and Relaxing
Highly sensitive people (like me!) are known for being easily overstimulated by their environments.
Barking dogs, flickering lights, scented candles, and piles of books and games can be very overwhelming for the sensitive student.
Try to keep your studio free from strong scents, loud noises, and clutter can make for a much more productive lesson.
Your highly sensitive student will be much better able to concentrate on what you’re teaching them if they’re not overwhelmed by the studio surroundings.
Offer Guidance Instead of Criticism
Highly sensitive students are very sensitive to criticism. They are very tenderhearted and easily wounded by harsh or critical words.
Of course, as teachers we often have to correct our students to help them play more accurately and musically. That’s part of our job.
But try to frame your constructive feedback as guidance (“The fingering in that measure is tricky. Let’s try it like this…”) instead of criticism (“Your fingering is wrong there. You need to fix it.”).
Your sensitive student will feel much more comfortable making mistakes in front of you if they know they can count on you to help them instead of feeling like they’re letting you down.
Of course, you would probably never think of it as “being let down” – but the highly sensitive student might interpret it exactly that way!
Let Them Take Their Time
Highly sensitive students are deep thinkers.
They often need more time to think through and absorb new concepts and ideas.
Give them some time to process new information during lessons. They are very in tune to nuances (for example, the difference between playing mezzo forte and mezzo piano) and will want to take the time to get it just right.
These students might also need more preparation and reassurance before recitals, exams, and festivals.
Letting them process and prepare for things on their own timetable will make things smoother for both of you.
Nudge Them Instead of Pushing Them
Highly sensitive students often have a hard time leaving their comfort zone and trying new things. They may need a gentle nudge in the right direction when it comes to entering unfamiliar territory.
However, there is a danger of pushing them too hard and causing them to shut down mentally and emotionally.
This is where knowing your individual students comes in handy: in time you’ll learn how far and hard to “nudge” them without crossing the line of pressuring them too much.
It takes patience and practice (for both you and them) but it’s well worth the effort.
Give Them a Chance to Help Others
If being highly sensitive has its challenges, it also has its benefits.
One of the strengths of highly sensitive people is their sensitivity and compassion for others.
Give them a chance to use that compassion by organizing a performance at a hospital or nursing home, starting a food drive for at-risk kids, developing a mentoring program that pairs older and more experienced students with younger beginners…the possibilities for this are endless!
Your highly sensitive student will love the opportunity to use their gifts and their tender heart to make someone else’s day a little brighter.
What approaches have you used with your highly sensitive students? Leave a comment below!