Talk to Me

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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!

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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.

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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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