Children have been a part of my life since my baby sister was born when I was only nine. I learned at an early age what it took to care for children and so it was no surprise that my first regular job, at just 12 years of age, was babysitting.
And every week after that job moved on, I was consistently asked to babysit. There wasn’t a week that went by that I didn’t have a job lined up that had to do with taking care of children.
On top of that, from the time I was 13 years old until my oldest was born, I was teaching weekly classes to 4 & 5-year-olds that ranged in size from 5-80 kids.
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, for the most part, get to enjoy a captive audience whenever I teach.
If you can take these tips and make them your own, you’ll do just fine!
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How to Engage With Children Tip #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. But if you are waxing eloquent and I haven’t latched on early in the conversation, you are going to lose me. It’s the same with kids.
If I want to talk about a particular subject, whether it’s a basic concept or a deep thought, I will need to explain it in a way the kids can easily understand.
There are a few ways to do this:
- Tell a story. Don’t just tell the kids what you want them to know. Transfer the take-away so that they imagine the thought. In other words, make your thoughts come alive inside their minds. Imagine Aesop’s Fables. We remember the moral of each story because it came alive for us.
- Have visuals. When a child can see the action for himself or has help imagining it, this keeps his attention. Flannel boards have been 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. 🙂
How to Engage With Children Tip #2
Keep your talk short.
It is difficult for a child to sit in front of someone and listen to them talk for an hour. There’s a reason teachers in school make use of visual aids and books and the black board. They help to keep the children engaged. Not to mention, most schools have a minimum of two recesses a day. Kids need to be interacting with their surroundings as much as possible or they grow weary of it.
When my youngest was in second grade, she had a teacher who would take mini exercise breaks after each subject. Another teacher used exercise balls in her class instead of chairs. These were all very effective techniques that helped the kids expel pent-up energy so they could focus better. But, depending on your situation, if you don’t have things like this at your disposal than minimize how long you expect the children to sit quietly.
How to Engage With Children Tip #3
Limit your number of take-aways.
This goes along with keeping your talk short, but you can speak for only ten minutes and still lose them with too many take-aways.
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. You can have sub-points but they should all go back to one central idea.
I teach a 3rd grade Sunday School class of a handful of girls, but once a month I teach in the general assembly where we’ll have on average 50-60 kids. I almost always start my talk with a story, something that draws them in and leaves them on the edge of their seat. That story always illustrates whatever point I want them to learn and then I spend just a couple minutes driving that thought home.
Afterwards, I usually give them something small for them to take home, something that will further enforce what they just learned, like a bookmark with a saying, etc. Which leads to my next point:
How to Engage With Children Tip #4
My kids know that I have something to give them after my talk. This is usually enough to keep them engaged because they don’t want to forfeit their treat by misbehaving. But sometimes, if a group has a particularly hard time sitting still and listening, you may want to use extra measures.
These are a few things I have found to be helpful:
- You can have a Quiet Seat Prize.
Three things to consider when doing this:
- Clearly define what you expect of them. My Sunday School girls know what I am looking for in a Quiet Seat Prize winner, mainly because I keep it very simple. I look for three things: Someone sitting quietly, Someone who is participating and Someone who’s eyes are on my eyes.
On occasion, or if we have a new girl in class, I will review what criteria I am looking for. This helps remind the girls how I expect them to behave. (I do have one girl who struggles with sitting still so I watch to see if she is at least trying. She has won the Quiet Seat Prize more than once because she was doing the best she could do. As a teacher, you will know your kids and what you can expect from them.)
- Keep the prizes in full view so the children are constantly reminded of what they are working towards. Kids have a short attention span so it’s nice to help them out in this area.
- You may need to remind the kids of the contest throughout your talk. When I’m talking and I see some kids starting to fidget, I will thank the kids for sitting still and praise them for doing a good job. I will then point out that I am still looking for my Quiet Seat Prize winner. This almost always reengages them.
- Aside from a quiet seat prize, you can also have a handful of candy that you randomly pass out during your talk 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, especially if they know they could win little prizes.
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.
How to Engage With Children Tip #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, including the ones in the back, who often feel neglected.
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.
But most importantly, have fun. Kids love to have fun. So should you!
Working with kids is such a rewarding experience, especially if you can reach inside and touch their hearts and minds.
You never know how much of a difference you can make in a child’s life, but I guarantee you, if you work on engaging them, you will be reaching far into the future with your influence.