Engaging the introverts in 4-H programming

How do we make sure our programs are serving the all the youth who want to be involved, and not just the most extroverted, charismatic and engaging kids?

At the local 4-H club meeting, Jason is ecstatic. He’s been waiting all week to come back and he loves it here. He moves with ease around the room, greeting old friends and making small talk with those around him as he prepares to focus on the activity or task at hand. Meanwhile, Scott’s parents made him come because he “needs to get out more.” He shuffles from the door over to a corner of the room, looking down at the floor as he goes. Scott likes it here, too, but it’s all a little overwhelming.

If you have spent any significant amount of time working with youth, then this scenario is very familiar to you. The extroverted kid is awesome! He always seems to have a good time. Everyone likes him and he likes the attention. He’s easy to program for because he engages those around him with ease. The quiet kids tend to be more of a challenge. Are they having a good time? Are they comfortable? What can we do to help them be more engaged with the activity and/or those around them?

Generally, introverts are perceived to be socially awkward, too quiet, and sometimes not as smart as their more charismatic counterparts. We may even think of them as having “issues” or “not normal.” The truth is introverts are extremely normal – as are the extroverts; we just have to remember that the youth we work with are not perfect widgets that fit into boxes, but rather unique works of art that come in all different shapes, sizes and attitudes.

When it comes to engaging the introverts, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Large groups are exhausting
    In the same way that extroverts are energized by crowds and attention, introverts draw strength and energy from smaller groups or time alone. For some, this means they are mentally exhausted by the mere thought of an event like Exploration Days or their local fair. Allow time for them to recharge, either through opportunities to work alone or in smaller groups, or scheduled alone time like a post lunch rest period.
  • Small groups must be small
    It only makes sense that introverts fare much better in smaller groups. However, the issue becomes whether or not a group is small enough or what to do if the project or activity you have planned requires a larger group. Sometimes the margin is very slim. A group of 10 to 12 could be too much, whereas a group of six to eight could be just what an introvert needs to avoid mental exhaustion.
  • Engagement looks different
    Extroverts tend to be more spontaneous, while introverts are more deliberate. Essentially, they often think before they speak or act. This is a valuable strength that can be perceived as a weakness in a culture that values self-expression and rewards attention-seeking behaviors. Introverts need to be given time to think and deliberate. Most likely, you know someone who doesn’t say much, but when they speak, people listen because their contribution always seems well thought-out, level-headed and profound. When asking questions, try allowing seven or more seconds for them to answer.
  • They are normal
    The more time I spend working with adolescents, the more I am convinced that one of their greatest needs is simply to feel normal. They are constantly comparing themselves to one another and with all of the changes that their minds and bodies are going through, it is important to give positive reinforcement and reassurance that they are normal.

While there is no clear, perfect answer to the best way to get the introverted kids involved, we can prevent youth from falling through the cracks simply by engaging them on a personal level and developing relationships. A little bit of personal involvement will help to increase the likelihood of their future involvement.

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