I am currently reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. The title itself is insightful, but I was initially intrigued when I came across a fellow homeschooler’s blog post discussing the role being a highly sensitive person has in her homeschool environment. She mentioned the book as she listed ways that have helped her avoid getting completely lost and drained in the mix of an inevitably high-noise environment – like the one a homeschooling mom may find herself in daily. Every point made was so spot-on for me that I just had to read the book for myself.
A highly-sensitive person or HSP (coined by Dr. Elaine Aron) is one who “has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.” What does this mean in every day life? HSPs are more likely to be overwhelmed by visual over-stimulation, chaotic environments, violence in movies, more than one person talking at once, and clutter, among other things. HSPs also tend to be extremely empathic and moved more deeply by music and art than the average person. HSPs are not necessarily introverted, but most of them tend to be more internal and reflective. Not only was it refreshing to read something about myself that I’d not overtly recognized before, I was also greatly encouraged to hear information about some of the traits that I have noticed in several of my children. I hate to use the word disorder, but I have seen some sensory processing issues arise in both my family and my extended family. I’ve noticed some aspects of it with a few of my children, particularly the physical sensitivity to certain stimuli and the struggle with certain environments. All in all, we have found several ways to help calm the highly sensitive children in our crew. Rather than see their responses to overstimulation as irritating and something that makes them deficient, I’ve endeavored to keep a positive attitude and see their sensitivity as a gift, perhaps because I myself am so sensitive and understand how tough it can be. It’s important for me to assist them in discovering what recharges them. A few minutes spent alone in a quiet room cannot be underestimated. Reading this book has provided several opportunities for me to look at my own emotional energy, both in how I spend it and if there are ways I can wisely conserve it so as to give the best of myself to my little students each day. A couple of methods I’ve prayed about, discovered, and implemented are already paying dividends as it relates to my mental clarity.
One of the most significant take aways I’ve had from the book is realizing how much clutter and decision-making can drain me of my mental energy. It seems so obvious, yet I’ve battled for years with being able to apply myself to something serious (like teaching mathematics) when the sink is full of dirty dishes. I have a hard time relaxing if the house is a disaster and toys and clothing are disordering my visual environment. It’s tough for me to start a new book when I know I have a looming project, like sorting through clothes my kids have outgrown and mending others as they frolic around in front of me in highwaters that have huge holes. I thought my obsession with having a clean, de-cluttered, knickknack-free home was an irritating idiosyncrasy, yet it turns out that I have subconsciously been ordering my surroundings so as to keep myself from being drained. Being a mom to many small children is an exercise in constant decision-making. Many of these decisions are not even significant ones (what will the kids wear today, which read-aloud book will we start first, what will I make for breakfast, etc.) but I have become increasingly aware of how much they seem to steal from my brain all that awesome inspiration I obtained during my quiet time before the day started in full swing. We have an ordered schedule to our day, but there are lots of little inspiration-stealers mixed up with it. Early in the morning, when the only decision I have made is what color of head covering to tie on my head, my routine involves rising with my alarm, coffee, protein powder, my NASB eBible on the Kindle, and I sit in the same chair after meditating silently for five minutes outside every single day. The order of events is so straightforward and simple that it gives plenty of room for relishing in my time with the Lord. Obviously, this time of the day happens before the children are up and about, but I found myself wondering why my routine with them couldn’t be more simplified. Does the day HAVE to start chaotically just because there are six little people clamoring for clothes and food? Am I only able to keep my mind uncluttered when there are no tiny voices constantly interrupting me? What if I could streamline many of the decisions I have to deal with so that the day could progress more smoothly? Goodness knows there are p.l.e.n.t.y. of opportunities for us to get off track. One blowout in the middle of Story of the World is about all it takes for everyone to disperse and get noisily distracted. To someone who is naturally organized, it would seem like streamlining would be an obvious solution, yet I’ve seen how this goes much deeper than just having a monthly menu, shopping list, and school schedule. For me to be able to give 100% consistently and completely, I really have to look at all areas of our day that are taking away from our energy – not just mine, but that of my own dear highly-sensitive children as well. Of course, I am not advocating trying to create an environment that has to be just-so for mama to function adequately. But I do want to be very disciplined as I look at those things that I could improve but just haven’t out of sheer laziness or lack of inspiration.
Food and clothes seems to be the thing that I always come back to that drain me far more than they should. There is always someone missing a sock or wanting a snack. These little people constantly need coats and gloves and shoes and a glass of milk and a peeled orange and help with school on top of all of that. If I want my best portion to be given to school and training in the admonition of the Lord – of course I do! – then these other small things have to be ordered in such a way as to not take away from the important things. Enter homemade fruit-on-the-bottom yogurts and oatmeal packets, a family closet, pre-assembled school lunches, and a large, pretty, permanent, very visible chore board that involves everyone. These are just a few of the things I’ve begun doing as a way to jump start our school days and I’m regularly finding areas that could use improvement. It’s amazing what kinds of things you find are draining energy when you actively look for them. We are getting to the point where unnecessary words (a concept probably completely foreign to my extroverted friends) are largely absent from our basic daily tasks. I never thought it would be possible to get everyone dressed, brushed, fed, cleaned, and starting school without my constant verbal direction. Now, when the time for read-alouds comes, we all are ready with full mental energy gas tanks. We talk a lot more about things that really matter. What’s more, the children I have who are introverts like me seem to thrive on the quieter routine.
The family closet is really a thing of beauty. I even took pictures because it has so monumentally changed my life. We’ve never had a house with enough room for it before, even though the idea has always appealed to me. Pete needed a quiet office space anyway as he has to bring work home with him a few nights a week. We transformed one of our bedrooms to an office/closet. With a few cheap racks from Walmart and some colorful bins from Big Lots, we have a place where every item of clothing, accessories, shoes, bags, gloves, hats – EVERYTHING – has its own spot. The kids get dressed in the family closet. They fold laundry in the family closet. There is enough room to make it feel like we are shopping for clothes each evening when we lay out clothes for the following day. Nothing is crammed into corners in a dark closet, never to be found again. If stuff falls off hangers, it can very easily be replaced instead of being forgotten on the floor collecting spiderwebs. Every sock has a mate and is in an easily-accessible bin. It is just so easy to keep everything in one room. Did I mention I haven’t had to use the broom to scour under the triple bunks (undignified on my belly, rear end in the air) for lost underwear one time since implementing this idea? It turns out it really is the little things that can make or break a homeschool day.