Shhhh and switch off the light, I can’t think!
9th January 2023 - By Kaaryn Cater
About the authors
Dr. Kaaryn Cater is a Learning Advisor at a tertiary learning institution in New Zealand. Her research interests include sensitivity, environmental impacts on learning, neurodiversity, inclusion, equity, empowering learners through intrinsic motivation, self-efficacy and metacognitive monitoring, and promoting education sector change through sensitivity education.
The participants in this qualitative study shared their experiences of sensitivity and learning. All participants found that aspects of the physical learning environment presented challenges for them. The study identified several key areas that the education sector could address to make the learning experience more equitable for highly sensitive learners.
Background and aims
Highly sensitive people are more noticing of, and reactive to, social, emotional, external and internal stimuli than less sensitive people. Research shows that this comes with some notable benefits for learning, including deep processing of information, memory, attention, artistic awareness, creativity, attention to detail, and enhanced responsivity to interventions .
However, high sensitivity can also present challenges for learners. For example, being put on the spot in class to answer questions can be challenging for someone who prefers to think carefully before speaking.
Being observed and assessed can also lead to feelings of overwhelm and can result in not being able to perform to the best of one’s ability. Also, low sensory thresholds, which are common in highly sensitive people, can lead to challenges for highly sensitive learners who can become overstimulated in bright, noisy and distracting environments .
How the study was conducted
All participants had previously taken part in an online survey (365 participants) exploring levels of sensitivity and elements of overall success for post-secondary learners.
Those who expressed interest in taking part in further research and who scored as highly sensitive (the top 30%) on the Highly Sensitive Person scale (HSP-12)  were invited to take part in a qualitative study. Thirteen participants were interviewed (12 female).
The interviews were audio recorded and transcribed (average interview length: 38 minutes) and the data were analysed using a method known as inductive semantic thematic analysis .
Three broad themes relating to educational success were identified:
- benefits of high sensitivity
- challenges of high sensitivity
- learning community and institutional support.
This study focuses specifically on some challenges identified and finishes with some recommendations to improve the learning experience of highly sensitive learners.
Although benefits of high sensitivity were identified, these will not be discussed in this blog given that the focus here is on learning environments, making the discussion about the benefits outside the scope of this paper.
Challenges: low sensory thresholds and stressful experiences
1. Low sensory thresholds
Most of the participants said that they were bothered by unnatural light, and over half said they specifically preferred natural light.
‘I think windows and light is really important’.
‘… I don’t like bright light. I hate fluorescent lights, which is an issue at school’.
‘… there’s these huge fluorescent lights, which are really a bit distracting’.
Noise was mentioned by twelve of the participants as a distracting factor when studying in the classroom, library, at home, or in other study spaces.
‘I really do not like loud sounds … it feels like a violation of my little space, my personal space’.
‘… things that I find distracting…any noises that are outside my environment, they’re coming in [to my space]’.
‘… anything noisy … that’s horrible. For studying … I need a quiet environment, even [in] libraries too much is going on in them for me. Even a quiet library’.
Most of the participants noted that they were bothered by fragrances from perfumes, colognes and cleaning products.
‘I smell smells … I’ll smell stuff’.
‘I don’t like unnatural smells … I can’t even walk by someone with perfume without dry retching’.
‘I am extremely sensitive to smell in that if there’s something that is different or not familiar, or especially perfumes or things’.
Being observed and feeling overwhelmed were identified by the majority of the participants as stressful.
‘I suspect it was in my brain. Something about [how] other people are judging me …’.
‘Giving a presentation, I could be so anxious I could almost feel like I was going to actually physically vomit’
Half of the participants said they were stressed by exams and worried that they may not be able to recall information under stress, or because the physical environment will be sub-optimal, distracting or overwhelming.
‘… most people do their exams in fight or flight … . You’re not at your best mentally when you’re in fight or flight, you’re at your worst’
What does this mean for learners
Across the planet, we send our children off to preschool and school from an early age, and our young people spend many years in school environments, sometimes well into their 20s and beyond. However, highly sensitive learners, can face added challenges that can impede their learning.
All too often, little attention is paid to the physical learning environments and how these impact learners. For example, fluorescent lights are common in learning environments, and these can have profound impacts on health and learning.
Visual and auditory distractions interrupt learning, and scented products such as cleaning and personal products often contain unregulated poisons and carcinogens that can impact health and impede learning. Those sensitive to the environment are more at risk of being impacted by these environmental factors .
Additionally, educators need to remain aware that highly sensitive students may feel uncomfortable being put on the spot in the classroom or having to speak in front of the class.
Through continued education on sensitivity, teachers can learn how to get to know their sensitive learners and work with them to harness their strengths, mitigate the challenges and thus promote success.
Additional suggestions for supporting highly sensitive learners:
- Provide widespread education on environmental sensitivity
- Establish personal levels of sensitivity when accessing academic or disability support
- Create physical learning environments that support optimal learning (lighting/noise)
- Provide low-sensory spaces
- Instigate fragrance-free policies
- Keep social and work/study spaces separate
- Provide flexible working/study arrangements
- Limit group work and presentations unless meeting specific learning outcomes
- Provide exam accommodations where possible
- Include sensitivity in diversity and inclusion initiatives
- Create a sensitive-friendly environment
- Establish sensitivity ambassadors
- Greven, C. U., Lionetti, F., Booth, C., Aron, E. N., Fox, E., Schendan, H. E., … & Homberg, J. (2019). Sensory processing sensitivity in the context of environmental sensitivity: A critical review and development of research agenda. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 98, 287-305. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.01.009
- Cater, K. (2022). I can’t concentrate! Creating learning environments that support highly sensitive learners to thrive. Whitireia Journal of Nursing, Health and Social Services, 29, 33-46. https://doi.org/10.34074/Whit.2910
- Pluess, M., Lionetti, F., Aron, E. N., & Aron, A. (2020). People differ in their sensitivity to the environment: An integrated theory and empirical evidence, 1–63. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/w53yc
- Braun, V., & Clark, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology 3(2), 77–101. https://doi.org/10.1191/1478088706qp063oa