Steering; Not Braking

Every fall I learned to know new students by layers. And the intense kids were first. I couldn’t miss them. They emoted passionately, moved incessantly, argued vehemently, reacted powerfully, and imagined vividly.

For too many years, I tried to put the brakes on these kids. But if I was pushing the brake, they were pressing the accelerator. And this combination overloads an engine.

Dabrowski, a Polish psychologist, helped me to appreciate these standout students, to concentrate on directing their energies instead of stifling them. The more I read Dabrowski, the more easily I could spot in my students the five intensities he describes:

  • Emotional—I never knew if Jennifer would bring storm or sun into my classroom. She could pour sympathy on her classmates or spew disgust. People who share this emotional intensity with Jennifer often show a strong sense of justice and associate robust feelings with their memories.
  • Psychomotor—You can spot a psychomotor intensity by the high levels of energy. People with this intensity speak fast, sleep little, and act impulsively. Cory’s parents wondered if he had ADHD. But Cory could focus—when he cared about a concept. It was when he needed stimulation that he twitched, tapped, and ticced.
  • Intellectual—Jessie couldn’t stop thinking. Desperate to know something new, she read herself to sleep, questioned teachers, and carried thinking puzzles everywhere, in case she got bored. People with an intellectual intensity can’t help but think—deeply, critically, and theoretically—even when they wish they could stop.
  • Sensory—A bad smell, a crooked sock seam, a hot or chilly classroom, or a fire alarm can all hijack the learning of a student with a sensory intensity. These students sometimes walk the school halls wearing earphones to muffle the jarring sounds. This super awareness of the senses grates, but it also heightens beauty when it is found.
  • Imaginational—People with vivid imaginations enrich others with their products—dramas and paintings and symphonies—but often at great cost to themselves. Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote, for example, Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, had such severe nightmares that he was often afraid to sleep.

Dabrowski helped me see that the best gift I could give intense students was to help them find outlets for their intensities, to spend more time steering and less time braking.

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