Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Seven Tips for Teaching Kids

Over the last five years, I have spent a lot of time working with children, whose ages ranged from six months to 16 years. Through hundreds of incidents of trial and error, I have learned a few tips and tricks to help kids do the right thing. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather some things I have learned along the way.

1. Be Consistent
This is by far the most important tip. If you don't follow through with what you tell the kids, they are smart and they will not listen to you. Sometimes this means you have to be consistent over and over until they finally get it. To give a couple examples from my life, sometimes kids have trouble holding on to the wall in swim class. This is a safety issue, and it is really important that they hold on to the wall. I give them a warning or two, and then tell them that if they take their hands off again, they will go in time out. For most kids, it only takes one time in time out for them to remember to keep their hands on the wall, but if I didn't follow through with the consequence, they never listened to me. Giving warnings is fine, but it only works if you are consistent with the consequence you set up in the first place. Although giving consequences may seem harsh, it really is the most loving thing you can do for a child. I had a four year old that I worked with at church who spent the first four months screaming at me and kicking me whenever I didn't do what she wanted. But over time, after many trips to time out and my being calm and consistent, she realized that I wasn't going to bend to her will. Then she began to settle in and accept that she wouldn't get her way all the time, and for the rest of the year, she was really sweet and kind. Kids need consistency, and they thrive in an environment when they know what to expect.

2. Offer an Alternative
To kids, adults can sometimes come off as "fun-killers," constantly saying "don't do this" or "you can't do that." When you offer an alternative, it can take the child's mind off of the forbidden activity, and direct them to something better. While lifeguarding last week, I had to constantly tell kids to stop trying to twirl around when they jump in (they are at much more risk of hitting their heads when they do this, in case you were wondering :). At one point, after telling them they couldn't twirl around, God gave me the idea to add, "but maybe you could see who could make the biggest splash when they jump in." Suddenly, the kids' faces turned from disappointed to excited, trying to figure out how to make the biggest splash. Offering an alternative can help kids to make a good choice for themselves, so that you don't have to constantly tell them no.

3. Recognize the differences between rebellion, fear, and immaturity
It may seem tricky to gauge the difference at first, but there are some defining characteristics that can help you figure out if a kids is scared, angry, or just really hyper. I know that, for me, there is a distinct difference between the kid who glares at me and tries to take his hands off the wall every time my back is turned, and the kid who is really excited and his hand keeps slipping off the wall while he tries to practice kicking. Both kids are doing the same wrong behavior, but with a very different heart attitude, and this can impact how you deal with the situation. I would be more likely for me to give an extra warning to really-excited-swim-kid or missing-mama-toddler than to the kid who clearly is mad at me and knows exactly what he is doing. But this is a situation where you have to ask God for his guidance in what to do, because that screaming kid may not have slept well last night, or may be having a rough time at home.

4. Don't be Scared by Screaming
This one is very counter-intuitive. When I have a screaming child, the thing I want to do is get them to stop screaming. No one wants to be "that" teacher, who has the screaming child that distracts all the other children. But in most cases, kids scream and throw a fit to get a response. So when you are unfazed by their screaming, most of them will stop after a little while. If you have a system in place (like screaming = time out), be consistent with it, but don't stress it if the kid won't stop. Sometimes, though, just getting down on their level and talking to them is enough to help them work through it. On multiple occasions, I have had kids in swim classes who were clearly not having a good day. It wasn't that they were scared of the water; they were just plain mad. So I took them through the water, screaming and all, and praised the good things I could find: "Good kicks, Xavier! I can see you are paddling with your arms, keep going!" This tends to stop them in their tracks. I had one kid who screamed the first half of class, but then started to calm down and participated fully at the end. You can set the tone of the class— if you stay positive, chances are that the kid will calm down eventually. It is hard to stay mad at someone who only says nice things to you.

5. Point out someone who is doing the right thing
"Oh, look at how Tyler is sitting criss-cross applesauce. He is doing such a good job! Can you all sit like Tyler?" This way, rather than giving attention to the child doing the negative behavior, you are giving attention to the one doing the right thing. Everyone likes to be praised, and most times the other kids will try to do the right thing too, in hopes that they will be the one to be recognized next time. 

6. Help them practice doing the right thing
Learning new things is hard for all of us. I read once that if you want to memorize something, you have to be able to repeat it from memory perfectly seven times. If I were to want to perfect a piano piece, I would have to play it a few hundred times to get it in my muscle memory. The same is true for helping little kids learn to do the right thing. I once worked with a three year old who just couldn't remember to keep her hands on the wall. She was put in time out over and over, but she couldn't get it. So we started to practice. I put my hands over hers on the wall and we counted to ten together. Then we celebrated and I praised her for keeping her hands on the wall. This not only helped her remember, but it showed her that she could do it.

7. Tell them the Moral Reason Why
This is an important factor if you want to teach a child to do something long term. If you were to tell a child "no" without saying anything else, they might obey that time. But on another day, or if you're not around, chances are that they would do the same naughty thing again. Telling them the moral reason why helps them understand why they shouldn't do something. "Why don't we run into the street? Because the car and very big and fast and we don't want you to get hit." Or to share an experience from my life at the pool, kids are not supposed to shove their kick boards underwater because the kick boards pop up and hit people in the head. Pretty simple, right? But in one preschool class, the teacher just told his kids "no" but didn't say why. About the fourth time he told them to not push them under water "because the lifeguards will get mad." I nearly laughed out loud when I heard that. It's like telling kids to be good or Santa won't give them any presents. So as I was lifeguarding, the next time I saw the kids shove their kick boards under the water, I asked them: "Do you know why we don't push our kick boards under the water?" They looked up at me, puzzled, and shook their heads innocently. "If you push them under the water, they can pop up and hit someone in the head," I explained, "and that would really hurt. So we are not going to push our kick boards under the water, okay?" They nodded, and set their kick boards up on the deck. Not only did they stop putting their kick boards under the water, but they decided I was their friend and waved at me every time I came by. This goes along with offering an alternative, but telling the kids the reason why lets them see that you are a person too, and not just someone there to tell them "no" over and over.

And there you go— seven tips for teaching kids! I realize this was a bit more of a practical post, and perhaps not as reflective or funny as some of the others I have written, but I hope these help you out in your endeavors with kids. Remember, kids are just little people, and treat them the way you would want to be treated. Be consistent, help them out, and explain why you want them to do something. May God bless you as you work to point these little hearts to him!

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