The Teacher’s Lounge was honored to have Julia Appleton, former Curriculum Director, Yearbook Advisor, and Secondary English Teacher at Academia Los Pinares in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, joining the Teacher’s Lounge today. Julia is joining us to discuss a subset of people we’re likely to find in every school, any classroom, on any instructional team: the highly sensitive person. To hear the full podcast, please join us here.

Michael Arnold: First, let me say welcome, Julia. Thank you for joining us today.

Julia Appleton: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m very excited to talk about the highly sensitive person.

Michael Arnold: It’s interesting. There’s a lot of research around that I wasn’t aware of until you brought this to my attention. I’m excited to dig into that and see how we can be helpful and encouraging to people maybe like you and me who fall into that category or others who might be in our classroom. I want to hear first a little bit about your experience.

Tegucigalpa has a very fond place in my heart. My first time flying, I landed in Tegucigalpa on my way to another city in Honduras on a high school missions trip, actually. I thought the plane was going to fall apart because the pilot hit the brakes as soon as the wheels touched down. Tegucigalpa, for those who don’t know, is literally surrounded by mountain ranges. It’s one of the scariest airports in the world, from what I’ve heard. How many times did you fly in and out of Tegucigalpa in your time there?

Julia Appleton: Dozens of times. They actually moved the airport so the scarier side of it is no longer there, but I’ve got my plethora of stories as well.

Michael Arnold: I’m sure. Well, what took you to Academia Los Pinares and how long did you live there in Honduras?

Julia Appleton: Way back when I graduated from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, teaching abroad was at the top of my list. If I could set the biggest life goal that I could have, I wanted to teach abroad and I didn’t think it would happen so quickly after I graduated.
I graduated in December of 2013 and a friend of my sister’s had actually taught at Pinares with her husband, many years prior to that. She just happened to know that they needed a high school English teacher. And let’s say I was way more excited than my parents were. I applied in August 2014. That was my first teaching experience, first year in the classroom with eighth and ninth graders. The last nine years have been just an incredible learning experience, an incredible marker in my story and my life.

Michael Arnold: How many students does Academia Los Pinares serve currently?

Julia Appleton: The school is preschool all the way to 12th grade, and probably in total, maybe around 600 students. The majority of them are Hondurans. The school is bilingual, and that’s what piques the interests of families. They want their kids to be bilingual, and that’s something Pinares is really known for is its prestige as a bilingual school, the level of fluency that the students graduate with. And having taught there many years, the greater goal, the greater focus is the Christian aspect, that we are there to share the gospel in every way possible with our students. It is a school that excels at doing that unlike any other bilingual school. It was a privilege to work there and it will always hold a place in my heart.

Michael Arnold: We’ve always enjoyed working with the educators there. I know there are several that I’ve had the opportunity to talk with and work with in a variety of ways. But it’s an international school, right? There are a lot of American teachers there at the school. And it seems like you were there for nine years, I believe, which is a pretty long stint for most people. I mean, most people would say that in two to three years teachers cycle in and out pretty quickly.

Julia Appleton: Oh, the way I like to tell the story is I got off the plane in August and I met my husband as I was leaving the airport. I stayed for that long because I married Honduran. And that’s the surprise of the story. I went down there on a one year contract and I knew I would stay longer than that, but the Lord had a lot of surprises in store for me there.

We’ve just recently moved back to the United States for the first time. We’ve been married six and a half years. And this is the first time that we have been able to travel together. And so as he loves to remind me, I went to Honduras with two suitcases and I went back with six suitcases, a husband and two children.

Most Exciting Times in Honduras

Michael Arnold: That’s amazing. So what would you say would be some of the most exciting and exhilarating parts of your time there in Honduras?

Julia Appleton: The culture. I was 23 when I got there and, I think in that time of life and that season of life, I was very eager for adventure and something totally different. I can go back in my story and look back on the years and just see how the Lord prepared me so much for a life abroad and a life in a different country. And that being such a big goal for me, He just gave me that desire to immerse myself. I feel like walking away and now coming back to the United States, I am a totally different person. I’ve got so much cultural experience in learning. I have to learn and I have to adapt to know exactly how to live in this country, how to communicate with people. When I think back to my specific teaching experience, I just marvel at the students that I got to work with, the people that I got to work with. Being able to just take in all the different things, cultural experiences and different sides of culture that I’ve learned, and let that become my new way of thinking is a beautiful experience. If anyone can live in a different country for a season I recommend it.

Michael Arnold: What about the difficult side, the challenges? What would be the most difficult part of being there?

Julia Appleton: Being far from home. Praise the Lord for technology and just having that ability to be with family and to connect with them.

But in the classroom, that cultural difference adds a lot. There’s a lot I need to learn. For me, I loved learning Spanish. That was really crucial. Going into the classroom during that first year, there’s a lot of cultural differences or just cultural ways that the kids interact with each other. It’s one thing to be in a classroom and you have that authority, but then all of a sudden you’re bringing in this different language. If I didn’t seek to learn that language, 80 percent of the time I might not even know what my students are saying.

And so there’s a lot that you can miss. I would say that was probably the hardest part. As I grew in my fluency in Spanish, that also was the sweetest part because I could interact with the students in their heart language.

Highly Sensitive People

Michael Arnold: Language is so much about context and those hidden cues or those cultural cues. Teaching internationally, I think everyone understands it’s not for the faint of heart. That might be a good segue into our topic for today, highly sensitive people. You consider yourself to be highly sensitive. What does that mean and what’s your experience with it?

Julia Appleton: I am a highly sensitive person. I didn’t know that being highly sensitive is actually a personality trait until about almost three and a half years ago. I knew growing up as a kid, because I had heard that label over and over: You’re just very sensitive. And so it’s interesting because immediately when I heard that as a child, I knew that about myself. Okay, I’m sensitive. But the way that it was expressed and discussed or mentioned offhand, even, it’s proposed as your greatest flaw and weakness. And so when I sat down with a counselor, she said, “Describe yourself.”

And I said, “Oh, I’m sensitive.”

And she said, “Now, that’s interesting you bring that up. Did you know that being a highly sensitive person is a personality trait?”

And to me, that was the most eye-opening series of discussions that I had with her. And over these last three and a half years, as I’ve learned what it actually means, it was truly healing for me in a lot of ways. If I were to define what a highly sensitive person is, there are a lot of angles to it. On a more basic foundation, I would say that the highly sensitive person is someone who feels things very deeply. That’s on that emotional side of things. It’s more that we read a situation emotionally instead of if somebody is reading a situation logically.

Also the highly sensitive person has a heightened sensitivity. Now, I mean that in terms of your five senses, right? We are easily more overstimulated. That’s a phrase I’ll say, We are overstimulated and therefore overwhelmed. So the person who is not highly sensitive, they probably have a higher threshold stimulation. They can receive more stimulation in terms of their five senses, whereas with the highly sensitive person that threshold is lower. So because we’re interpreting data or receiving all our senses at a higher level, they’re working maybe 10 times faster than the non-sensitive person. For me, I have a very heightened sensitivity to sound. When washing dishes and the plates hit, to me, it literally sounds louder in my ears than it would to somebody else. For many highly sensitive people, sometimes that sensitivity is so great that it’s actually physically painful. So I could tell you that it actually hurt my ears.

And a lot of times when I’m talking to my children and if they’re both screaming at the same time, that is a very overstimulating and therefore overwhelming situation for me. I tell them that it actually hurts my ears because the sensitivity is great for me. So that might be more of a way of seeing it that it creates a very specific response.

Another way that I see my highly sensitive nature in terms of our five senses would be taste, right? I love cooking, but I also love eating a cookie and then telling someone, “Did you use this type of spice in it?” A non-sensitive person might not be able to do that. It just tastes like a specific spice. And so that’s the fun side of it.

We read situations emotionally, so we’re sensitive to the atmosphere, and our five senses work on a greater level than someone who isn’t sensitive.

Michael Arnold: To hear it expressed as a trait rather than a flaw is probably new information for people who’ve maybe not identified themselves as highly sensitive, but have heard much of their life, you wear your feelings on your sleeve, you’re just too sensitive, don’t take things so personally. But it can play out in many different ways, right?

So you mentioned sound and taste. I’m looking at one of the resources you recommended,, where Dr. Elaine Aaron lists some things that might be a common experience. People who avoid movies or books that are highly graphic might be a highly sensitive person. People who are sensitive to dark or cold or other feelings could be highly sensitive.

Julia Appleton: Exactly. That’s a big one for me, too. I cannot watch certain R-rated movies. And for me, I was like that’s a conviction. And then I realized, no, it’s because I literally can’t handle the combination of sight and sound together because my mind remembers it. I see it once and I remember it.

Michael Arnold: It was interesting as I was becoming aware of this–and you can actually take a self test there, which I thought was fascinating– but the percentage of the population who would qualify or could be categorized as highly sensitive, share with us about that.

Julia Appleton: So it’s actually a pretty high percentage. Twenty percent of any given population, whether it’s your classroom, or think of your family, twenty percent of people in a room are highly sensitive. For such a large percentage, it’s interesting how, myself included, nobody talks about this or we’re not very aware of this. That twenty percent of your students could easily absorb the majority of your time because they could be overstimulated and overwhelmed. They might be just responding so emotionally to a situation that’s overstimulating.

Michael Arnold: And it often presents itself as shyness, which is, as Dr. Aaron says, a learned trait, but it’s a way that highly sensitive people have learned to interact with the world by withdrawing. So when you say those students could take up more of your time, just trying to draw those students out and inviting them into the conversation can be draining. I know as a teacher, you want your shy students to feel comfortable to participate, but understanding this underlying trait could be very helpful.

Julia Appleton: Absolutely. And that shyness, that’s exactly how I was as a kid. When I look back on it, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to participate, it was that I was busy observing everything else that everybody was doing and I was absorbing it because I wanted to make sure that I did it correctly.

And that’s something that’s really interesting about highly sensitive people is that because they’re absorbing and observing what everyone else is doing, they also want to do things the right way. And that also comes from this ability to foresee almost that chain reaction of behaviors, right?

So if the student next to me starts doing all these things, I might have told that student, “Hey, don’t do that. The teacher’s going to yell at you.” They didn’t think that way, but I thought that way. And so I’m not going to do that behavior because I know how the teacher’s going to respond. I remember as a kid having that friend, I would go to her house and I would tell her, “No, we can’t do that because I know that your dad is going to yell.” She wasn’t able to process or to see in the future the chain reaction of her behavior, but I was, and so in being so uncomfortable by someone yelling, I felt it necessary to tell her, “No, don’t do that because your dad’s going to yell.”

Now you might say why does that make a difference? You’re not the one in trouble. This is probably one of the greatest pieces of insight I could give about highly sensitive students in your classrooms. For example, let’s say the entire school day is going really great. They’ve not been overstimulated. They’ve not been overwhelmed. And then at the last moment of their day, their teacher loses it on the student across the room. That highly sensitive student will absorb everything in that situation, and they will wear the fact that the student got in trouble. They will wear that the teacher raised their voice, that the teacher was not controlled in the way they were responding to that student, and the rest of their day, it doesn’t matter what happened in the beginning of their day, they will wear that and they will carry that home with them.

I had a class that was very challenging and they were the last class of the day. So I could have had a beautiful day with my students, all the other sections, but then that one last class, it was overwhelming for me. I tried every single thing I could do, but it didn’t matter how the rest of my day went because I absorbed everything so emotionally. Whatever happened in that last hour on that day, I would take it home with me.

That’s where my brain is processing, that’s where my emotions are still replaying everything that happened in that classroom. How can I do it better? Those kinds of things. But a lot of dynamic there of how highly sensitive students absorb things in their environment and how one tiny thing, they could absorb that. A bad conversation or a bad interaction and they’re processing through it all day long. That’s very draining. Very, very draining.

Moving Past the Moment

Michael Arnold: So how do you help someone, whether it’s a teacher or student, move past that? That was just a bad moment. It doesn’t need to continue to hang over you the rest of the day. How do you talk them through that?

Julia Appleton: That’s such a good question, and I think there’s a lot of different approaches. Let’s say, go back to that situation where there’s one student who basically got in trouble in the class and the teacher raised their voice. How could you help consider your highly sensitive student in that? Again, go back to your senses. It’s going to sound louder in their ears than it will for anyone else and actually can be borderline traumatizing for those students because it’s overstimulating and it gets them very overwhelmed.

I will never yell at my students. I will not raise my voice. Talk to the student who is having the behavior issue privately. That will eliminate this “everybody-got-in-trouble” kind of thing.

But also, if you know your highly sensitive students, pulling them aside and saying, “Hey, you did your homework today” or “I’ve noticed that you’re very detailed in this way.” Compliments. That’s something that they will remember because they’re interpreting that moment emotionally, and they’ll see that acceptance, that approval from their teacher is very good.

For children, in the moment when they’re overstimulated, they’re overwhelmed, what they need in that moment is comfort. So be the teachers who can come in and help that student take a deep breath when they’re overwhelmed. Deep breathing for me is so therapeutic. It’s so helpful. And if you’re the highly sensitive teacher, you’d say, “All right, class, let’s all just take a deep breath right now.” It’s so therapeutic because it helps get our brains rethinking. It gets our reasoning skills at the right spot in our brains.

But knowing who your highly sensitive students are, you can be helpful in giving them little skills like taking a deep breath. Helping them to recognize that they did accomplish all these things and all those things count, not this maybe one thing that they forgot.

The list of practical tips can continue, but I would come back to this comfort as being the central need for both the highly sensitive teacher and the highly sensitive student. So as the teacher, you can come along and help be that comfort to that student. And as a teacher, learning in our own level of maturity to comfort ourselves is often the most beneficial way and the fastest way of pushing through what are maybe even constantly overwhelming situations.

Michael Arnold: That’s a great tip, I think, for any teacher, when you recognize that two out of ten of your students could be highly sensitive.
What does the highly sensitive person bring to the classroom? What are the benefits? What’s the value? If you assume God made us all the way He did to contribute, to bring beauty, what is some of the beauty that a highly sensitive person might bring to an environment?

Julia Appleton: I liken this to the superpower of the highly sensitive person. It’s almost like the ability to foresee the future. Your highly sensitive teachers, your highly sensitive students, they are very perceptive of knowing and being able to foresee what could happen as a result of whatever this is.

You could start with a classroom science experiment or maybe you’re just making predictions in your reading skills, right? They’re going to be really, really good at that. Now you take that to the teacher’s side of things. Maybe your administrators, they need to make plans for the future. And they grab those highly sensitive teachers and say, “Hey, we have this plan. What could go wrong? What could go right? What do you foresee about this?” Because we’re such sponges in our ability to soak up, we know chain reactions, and what not to do, what to do.

The other biggest and most beautiful thing to think of in the classroom and the students there, empathy is going to be such a beautiful, almost automatic skill that these students have because we wear our heart, like you said, on our sleeve. I walk into my classroom and I look around at all the faces of my students and I can tell you which student is not having a good day just by their expression on their face. That is something that the other 80 percent of people who are not highly sensitive have to maybe even remind themselves, Hey, look at my students’ faces. But it’s so automatic for the highly sensitive student or teacher. If you’re thinking of students and talking about empathy, maybe as a school culture or even a theme that you’re working on as a class, think of those students and have them give ideas. How can I help this person or how can I look at someone’s face and determine how they’re feeling? Then from there, what can we do to help? What can we do to serve those students?

On the Lookout

Michael Arnold: Yeah, that’s powerful. The highly sensitive person is probably also on the lookout for people who feel excluded from the community.

Julia Appleton: That’s a big one. As a kid, I remember, I wanted to include the students who were going to feel left out. That’s going to be so painful for them. And that’s our ability to foresee the future. But it was almost physically uncomfortable for myself.

For me, I know something that’s also physically uncomfortable is if I’ve had a conversation with somebody and I feel like that person is upset, or if I’ve upset that person. Give those highly sensitive students the skills to reconcile. How do we be peacekeepers and peacemakers in this?

Michael Arnold: Wow. And I think that sense of peace–seeking peace, needing peace, preserving peace–is probably at the core of what a highly sensitive person is. Would you agree?

Julia Appleton: Absolutely. It’s a very interesting dynamic because you’ve got this, I need to be at peace with people, but yet so much chaos is going on, but I need to find that peace. And the flip side of that, and this is where the gospel comes in so beautifully, if that need for peace with people is not redirected towards biblical truths, it very easily can lean towards that side of people pleasing, which is utterly exhausting and utterly discouraging. And I’ve lived in that bubble. The moment I know that I’m simply trying to please this person, I know that I’m a little overwhelmed. Something’s not quite right. And there are times where I say I can’t please this person and I have to just let it go.

Michael Arnold: So let me ask this. Let’s say that I am not a highly sensitive person. Maybe I’m the other extreme, sensitive as I should be. And I recognize that I’ve blown it, that I have just overstepped. I have destroyed the peace. I have raised my voice. How do I go about repairing interactions with a highly sensitive person, whether it’s a coworker or a student in my classroom? How do I go about bringing peace back? What are some strategies I can use to draw them back in?

Julia Appleton: I think one of the biggest things is if you’re in the 80% and you recognize that you may have seriously hurt the 20%, whether it’s you as the teacher or even just in your own family relationships. That’s a really big recognition. That you are recognizing that the way this person thinks and processes information and the way they feel things is at a totally different level is already a beautiful step because I’ve been on the other side where I’ve had to go to the 80 percent and I’ve had to tell them, “Actually, I prefer you not speak to me this way because this is what it triggers.”

But practically speaking, recognize where you’ve overstepped. Let’s say you did lose it and you yelled which can be very hard for the highly sensitive person. Just identify it and say, “I raised my voice. I know that can be really hard for you and I want to apologize for that, or I want you to recognize that you didn’t do something wrong.”

The best thing that you can do if you’re not highly sensitive is to sit and listen to the highly sensitive people and to recognize how they think, how they process and to be aware. I think that awareness is really powerful whether it’s awareness just as you as the teacher or an awareness for counselors to know those students that are highly sensitive.

Michael Arnold: That’s great information. It’s been great to have you share this with us. It’s not a flaw, it’s a trait and it has amazing potential for good, peace, justice, and empathy, and yet it needs to be channeled in the right direction. A lot of great input there. So thanks for sharing that with us today. We’re looking forward to the webinar that you’re going to present to us on this topic in January.

I like to give my guests the last word. So in a sentence or two, tell your fellow Christian educators as they step before their class this day, what would you want them to keep in mind? What do you want them to know about their calling and their purpose?

Last Word

Julia Appleton: Oh, my brothers and sisters, as you stand in front of your classrooms today, take a moment to look at the faces of your students, to recognize two things. One, that every single trait and characteristic about them, whether they’re highly sensitive, introverted, extroverted, whatever it may be, that God is the one who designed them that way.

And my second one would be to look at their faces and know that they might be carrying something that’s hard, something that’s heavy, so the emotional environment of your classroom is so important as well. I look forward to sharing this webinar in January. Come prepared.

Julia Appleton studied creative writing and education at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. After graduating, she moved to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where she spent nine years teaching high school English at the bilingual Christian school, Academia Los Pinares. In her time at ALP, she also served as curriculum coordinator and yearbook adviser. In June of 2023, Julia moved back to her hometown of Lake Placid, New York, along with her husband and two children. She is currently enjoying a season of staying home with her son and daughter.