When I was only 12 years old, I started babysitting full-time for a friend of the family. I know, sounds young, right? It helped I had a baby sister born when I was nine. I learned early on how to care for children with the experience I had of just being an older sister. After that first job, I was babysitting nearly every week of my life even after I began working for a farmer full-time.
When I was thirteen, I was teaching a weekly class of 4 & 5-year-olds and that lasted until I left for college where I also took up teaching other 4 & 5 years olds. I now teach third-grade girls every Sunday and give a lesson to 60-80 3rd graders once a month.
You would think this would qualify me to write this post. Sadly, it doesn’t. Anyone can get up in front of kids and teach. But not everyone can connect with their audience, especially when they are little humans with fleeting attention spans. Thankfully, over the years, I have watched other teachers and learned what works and what doesn’t. Then I incorporated those things into my teaching methods and enjoy a captive audience whenever I teach.
I’m no one special, I’m not even that funny, but when I use these techniques, I can engage my tiny listeners. Here are some tips I use every time I’m in front of a group of children:
1. You need to get on their level.
One of the mistakes many teachers make is they never break their lesson down so their audience can relate. I’m not talking about dumbing down your content, but rather making it relatable. I am a bottom-shelf kind of girl. If you give me practical advice, I will love you for it and use it. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy the occasional deep conversation but I prefer to be taught in ways I can readily incorporate without having to really think it through.
Children are the same way. If I want to talk about a particular subject and teach the children what it means, I will need to explain it in a way they can easily understand. There are a few ways to do this:
- Tell a story. Don’t just tell what it is, give them examples in a story format. Make your thoughts come alive.
- Have visuals. When a child can see the action for himself or has help imagining it, this keeps his attention. Flannel boards were used in nearly every young classroom and Sunday School room for a reason: they work! Little Folk Visuals have some awesome felt stories that can help you tell your story.
- Be animated. This may be hard to do for some people. I never had a problem getting into character with only children present, but throw an adult in the mix and I felt immediate reservations. It took time for me to get over myself. haha Now, I can stand in front of any group and tell a story without a problem. I would go so far as to say this step is essential if you want to teach children effectively. Very few people can hold a child’s attention with a monotone voice. Not everyone can be a Mr. Rogers.
2. Keep your talk short.
The last thing a child wants to do is sit in front of someone and listen to them talk for an hour. I don’t either, for that matter. Children these days are used to being entertained by fast-moving images on a screen. Unless you have a small circus performing on stage with you, you are going to need to limit your time. This leads to my next point:
3. Keep your take away down to one point.
Three at the most. If you really want to make an impact, choose one point you want them to learn and wrap your entire talk around that one thought. Occasionally, you can list several points but they have to be fun and engaging. I recently gave a talk about honey and had six points. The kids remembered the points only because they were fun, informative in a child-like way and I had prizes. Which leads me to the following point:
4. Have incentives.
I do not use incentives every time but if I know my group struggles with listening, I will use them. There are many ways to do this:
- You can tell the kids you are looking for the best behaved and show them what you are offering for a prize.
Three things to consider when doing this:
- Clearly define what you expect of them. My Sunday School girls know my rules. When I have a new girl visit my class it’s my regular girls who list what I am looking for in a quiet seat prize winner. (Sitting still, no talking, eyes on me, etc.)
- Keep the prizes in full view so the children are constantly reminded of what they are working towards.
- You may need to remind the kids of the contest throughout your talk.
- Aside from a quiet seat prize, you can have a handful of candy that you randomly pass out to kids who are behaving the way you want them to. This is a very effective method of keeping their attention!
- Another great way to keep your audience’s attention is to tell the children that you will be asking questions after your talk so they need to listen for the answers. This announcement elicits immediate attention from the kids.
You don’t even have to use candy as incentives. Kids are usually very easy to please. I have told my kids I was looking for helpers to pass things out after my talk and, without the promise of candy, most were eager to win the opportunity to help.
5. Smile and make eye contact.
This might sound too minuscule to mention, but I cannot stress this point enough. If you are standing in front of a group of kids and you never smile, most likely you will never connect with them. Think about it, wouldn’t you rather listen to someone who is pleasant than someone who doesn’t look pleased to be there?
Also, if you look above their heads, they won’t stay engaged. When I talk, I do not always stand in one place. I sometimes pace, which not only allows my audience to stay engaged but also affords me the opportunity to make eye-contact with more of the children around the room.
Children are smart. A lot smarter than we sometimes give them credit for. They know when you are genuine and when you want to be there, teaching them. If they feel like you like them and are happy to be there, you’ll be surprised how much they will respond to you.
These are just a few of the things I have picked up along the way and what I have used when teaching children. It doesn’t matter if your audience is large or small, these methods can and do work. But most importantly, have fun. Kids love to have fun. So should you!
What are some things you have found that works well with children?