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Talk to Me

Susan Shadid

Have you ever been in a classroom where you can see or hear another group of kids interacting and having fun -- and you're not? The other teacher and group are lively, but your teacher or group is boring. I have, and I remember secretly thinking, I wish I could be a kid in that group because I'd never be bored. I'd have fun and probably get the perfect attendance award, if I was in that teacher's room!

The difference between these two kinds of groups is the leader. And you can be the kind of leader kids flock to, because you continually create a fun, safe environment. In fact, if you're a leader who loves what you do, then you've heard kids say, "I want to be in your group next year!"

Kids can be discerning, even when you least expect it. They intuitively know if you love to connect with them, if you love what you're doing, and if you're in charge.

There are many ways to intentionally shepherd and connect more deeply with kids. For optimal learning and life-change in the minds and hearts of children, they need to feel as though you want to hear them. Good communication happens when there's a strong safety net socially, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Here are six methods proven to be effective with kids.

1. Communicate caring! Kids need to know they matter to you! Always remember this motto: "Kids don't care how much we know until they know how much we care." The investment of time on the front end, getting to know your kids versus getting through the curriculum, pays off royally. You'll be able to go twice as deep because relationships are in place and your kids will want to come back for more. Remember, for some kids church might be the only safe place they have.

For children to grow and understand God's love, they need to know they're loved, accepted, and cared for. Make a list of how you're intentionally getting to know your kids, then create a few new ways.

Notice a pattern in what kids want to talk about. Concentrate on keeping track of what they're asking about or telling you. Honestly check the percentage of time you spend on active listening. When I first started practicing active listening, my percentage was lower than what I wanted to admit.

If a child tells you his favorite candy bar is a Baby Ruth, take note. Surprise him on his eighth birthday with one or even eight Baby Ruth candy bars. This was a home run with one kid who said, "How did you know that was my favorite candy bar?"

Like this boy, many kids are amazed and pleasantly surprised when they hear, "Because you told me a couple months ago." Kids aren't always accustomed to being heard. It can be a big deal to kids when you remember small things.

2. Keep the goal of the group in mind. Some leaders focus so much on connecting and having fun that the main point of the lesson gets lost. Other leaders lean too far into content and doing the activity that the relational part is null and void. Notice how much time Jesus spent being relational while he taught. Kids need to experience and be in relationships within God's family as they learn about God's love. Grace must be in place as kids learn about God's grace and love. Without ongoing, intentional relationships, the learning becomes stagnant and focused only on memorizing and conveying information.

3. Use your curriculum. The curriculum is a tool to help you accomplish your goal. Ask the questions, listen to kids' responses, and watch your kids' nonverbals throughout the lesson. Your curriculum helps you shepherd your kids and go deeper relationally and cognitively.

Be a listener and learner. Incorporate what kids share throughout the lesson. It'll affirm that they have something to offer and deepen the interactions. When kids ask a question or tell a story, don't worry about getting through the whole activity. It's more important that children process and discuss what they're learning.

As kids mentally process the lesson, they need to know that the group is a safe place to think aloud, ask questions, make mistakes, or share their stories. When kids start to open up intellectually, their belief systems start to unroll and they'll freely express their views. When they hear their own voice, they'll become more confident in what they believe or don't believe.

Once I asked a group of kindergartners this question: "What do you think the Israelites thought when God parted the waters of the Red Sea?" Timmy's hand shot up, and he said, "I wonder if God could part the water in my bathtub?"

Someone else piped up, "Well, of course, because God can do anything!" Perhaps Timmy was wondering if the God of the Old Testament is the same God today.

I felt comfortable not answering Timmy's question because several of his peers gave him plenty to think about. This kind of interaction can sometimes lead to side discussions, which are fine. Then bring the discussion back to the main point of the lesson.

4. Be clear and concise. Clear language is vital when teaching or leading kids. Here are two tips to use when you craft your words:

Use developmentally appropriate language. Recently, I heard someone say to a first-grader, "I was walking far away from God...and he caught my attention and pulled me back." Kids at this age still think concretely and might picture this man on a dog leash and God yanking him back.

Be kid-sensitive and seeker-sensitive in your speech. One leader asked a second-grader, "Do you want Jesus to become the Lord and Savior of your life? Have you turned over all of your sins to God?" Instead, he could've said, "Do you want to choose to follow and obey Jesus?" There's a Christian vocabulary that sounds like a foreign language to most kids because it's too abstract and isn't tied to their concrete experience. Keep your communication clear, concise, and simple.

5. Encourage critical thinking. Think about the groups you've been a part of, either as a leader or when you were a kid. If you're like me, some groups focused on fellowship, fun, food, and games. Some groups went through the curriculum and focused on having us memorize verses. Other groups focused on the craft, coloring sheets, or filling in the blanks. These are valid activities, but they don't encourage critical thinking.

Research shows that 90 percent of the questions teachers ask are basic recall questions. What percentage of your questions are basic recall questions versus open-ended and reflective questions? There are many different levels of higher order thinking. Asking open-ended and reflective questions teaches children to look beneath the surface and to think deeper. These questions also reduce boredom and increase attention.

  • Reflect on the difference between these two levels of questions:
  • How many days and nights was Noah on the ark? (basic recall)
  • What do you think it might've been like for Noah to have been on the ark for 40 days and 40 nights? (open-ended reflective question)

One boy's response to the latter question was: "Yeah, I bet it stunk in there, but I think Noah was glad he obeyed God and didn't drown." Noah's experience became more concrete and less abstract when this boy put himself in Noah's sandals and even thought about cause and effect. Another way to develop children's critical thinking skills is to use the 3-3-5 Think Time approach. Ask the group a question, then pause for three seconds. This gives all the kids time to reflect on the question before you call a name. Then call on a child and have him pause for three seconds to allow him to think about what he's going to say. Then after the child responds, pause five seconds after the answer. This allows the child to elaborate on his answer, allows you to craft your response, and allows others to respond to the answer.

It's important for everyone to participate in your group. For example, if you're doing a creative Bible lesson on a ranch theme, tie two corners of a bandanna or use a cowboy hat and insert smooth rocks.

Write one name on each rock. After you've asked a question and waited for three seconds while giving think time for everyone, pull out one rock and call the child's name. When all the rocks have been pulled, then everyone has had an opportunity to share. Be creative as you develop ways to call on kids.

6. Know kids' needs. William Glasser, psychiatrist and author, says we all have certain needs and all our behavior is an attempt to meet one or more of our basic needs. These needs are survival, to be loved and have a sense of belonging, to be important and have something to contribute, to be free to make choices, and to have fun. Determine if what you're currently doing addresses these five needs. You may want to brainstorm with other teachers about how to meet these needs. In all that you do as you respond to children's needs and behaviors, remember to give each child a Ph.D.: Preserve their Human Dignity.

You'll connect intentionally with your kids when you care, stay focused, use your curriculum, communicate clearly and concisely, and challenge them to think creatively and critically. Play and pray hard. Then go ahead and dive in, but realize who really makes the splash. Sometimes you may or may not see the ripples, but kid-size spiritual formation and growth happens because the Holy Spirit makes the connections -- not you. After all, that's what keeps me jumping back in week after week, month after month, year after year.

Susan Shadid is on staff and involved in curriculum and training for Willow Creek's Promiseland Ministry in Barrington, Illinois.


As a children's ministry leader interested in connecting with kids, perhaps you've wondered if your ministry might have room for small groups. Here are reasons to try a small group ministry.

Focus on Relationships -- We must move beyond "dump truck" teaching that focuses solely on dispensing information. Small groups of four to eight children create a safe space for kids to share their thoughts, feelings, doubts, and fears. Your kids have spent all week at school absorbing information. This is a chance for them to be actively engaged in the spiritual learning process.

Leader Connection to Kids -- Small groups give your leaders a chance to really get to know their kids. It's difficult for our leaders to even learn the names of 15 or 20 kids, let alone enter into their worlds. Even Jesus spent the majority of his time focusing on a small group of 12.

Engaging Shy Kids -- Small groups allow kids to be actively engaged. Many kids in your church are introverts by nature. If they're in a group larger than seven or eight, they'll simply remove themselves emotionally from the conversation. They may hear what's being said, but they surely won't share their lives with their leader or the other kids.

Crowd Control -- Other kids are extroverts who'll do everything they can to steal the show in a large group setting. Perhaps you've wondered why, when Mr. Smigglesworth is expounding the mysteries of God's Word to his 20 fourth graders, Johnny is on the table making armpit noises and Susie is behind him with rabbit ears. Try small groups as an effective crowd management technique!

We all have room for small groups. Small groups can happen in the corner of a classroom, at the end of a hallway, or even outside on the lawn. Small groups won't solve all your problems, but they are the first step toward enabling your kids to truly get to know their leaders and each other. That's when life-change really happens for kids and leaders!

-- Anthony Guynes


Heart Check

Is your passion for connecting with kids healthy and growing? Check by examining your "heart rate" as you take the following quiz.

___ I look forward to being with my kids.
___ I come prepared and prayed up each weekend. (Reading the lesson in the car on the way to church doesn't count. Sorry!)
___ During the week, I occasionally think of specific kids and their families.
___ I look for ways to connect with kids by continually trying to understand their ages and stages.
___ I know my kids' favorite toys, games, or TV programs.
___ I continually watch for "what's hot and what's not" so I can better understand kids.
___ I know what things kids are learning in school.

If you can consistently answer "yes" to at least four of these statements, then your heart gets a clean bill of health. If not, look at the areas you can work on this week to strengthen your heart for the kids God has entrusted to you.


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