When I first began working in child care, I had no idea how to talk in front of a group of children and make myself heard. One season, I worked for a company organizing discovery classes for the children of Paris and its suburbs.
My job was simple: every week or two, I’d be taking a new group to a new place in France, and I would be in charge of all the activities and organizing their daily life. I never knew which school I’d be working with, or the children’s age, or where I was going, until the evening before the departure. I’d met my coworkers that same night. I often found myself in the position of the more experienced worker, even if I did not have that much experience in the field.
Quickly, I learned to deal with teenagers who couldn’t care less about my authority. I will share the most important things I have learned to obtain and maintain children’s attention and respect.
Setting Rules that Will Be Respected
At the very beginning of your camp, your class, or your school year, whatever it is that you are doing, you should edict a policy along with the children. It’s easier to enforce rules if they have participated in their creation.
Write the rules on a poster for everyone to see. Most importantly, don’t forbid things if it isn’t necessary, even if it makes your life easier. You won’t be respected for long of you are perceived as unfair.
You will have to repeat yourself. Don’t quit! Each time a child breaks the policy, take time with the group to talk about the rules and why they are essential for everyone’s well-being. It’s more effective than reminding each kid individually all the time.
When individual sanctions are necessary, they must have a direct link to the behavior. Forcing a 12-year-old to write 150 times the same thing belongs to another era. It will only make you lose your credibility.
Children Enjoy the Silence
Maybe the less enjoyable part of working with children is to require their attention and ask for silence.
It’s stressful and exhausting to work in a noisy atmosphere for you and the children. If you can’t create a calm environment, some of them will complain about having headaches and ask you to take action. It is our job to ensure that the work environment is peaceful.
Never start an activity or enter a room without having the attention of your group. Again, you will have to repeat yourself a lot, at first, but your efforts will pay soon.
In my early days, I tried to ask for silence by raising my voice. Soon I realized that I’d need to shout louder and louder to obtain a minute of calm. I used different methods, but it wasn’t getting better until I met one particular group I liked a lot. We were taking our meals together in a small noisy room, and the children in this group were incredibly funny. We were all laughing and loudly speaking when I stood up and spoke to the crowd with a clear, confident voice to announce our planning. They all stopped talking and looked at me.
That day, I had an epiphany: it was my only presence that was doing the job. I had built a trustful relationship with the children, one where we listened to each other.
Boredom Is Your Enemy
In training, we were told to organize games to keep the children busy. Teenagers were not much into playing games. I thought it was a little condescending as well. When I was their age, I would have hated that kind of activity. I’d rather have stayed with my friends sitting on a bench and talking about our lives. So I offered them more free time, which only made things worst!
To much spare time causes boredom. When children are bored, they don’t always come with the best ideas. You might not appreciate it.
Free time can only be given when you can trust the children’s behavior. It’s a reward when they have gained your trust. However, you can set a moment when they are on their own but doing activities that require them to work in small groups (like training for a talent show).
Create Engaging Activities
If your activity fails, it’s probably your fault, not the children’s.
I still hear a lot: “These kids are unbearable. They are disrespectful. They don’t care about what I do for them”. But have you tried a different approach? Are you dynamic, invested, confident?
To make this work, you have to create engaging, fun activities, adapted to the children’s age and capacities. If you have a tough crowd, make sure everyone participates, and no one is waiting for their turn. Otherwise, some kids will start talking or doing something else while waiting.
Secondly, make sure that you offer various activities to meet everyone’s tastes, and don’t be afraid to allow propositions. A game is always more pleasurable with a good story. Create an incredible background and immerse them in an experience. For a 6-year-old, it might be about dragons and princesses. Young teenagers will prefer to solve a crime scene. Older ones will enjoy the caricature of a celebrity.
If your group is late, it’s probably your fault, again (sorry).
If you say to twenty teenagers: “You have one hour to shower and clean your room before diner.” You must visit every room and verify that they are doing what you asked them. Otherwise, they’ll never be on time. Remember that kids do not perceive time the same way that adults do.
It’s also in these occasions that most behavioral issues appear. Your active presence nearby is required. By “active” I mean that you should not consider this moment as a break and check social-medias or text. Take this opportunity to offer your help.
It’s better to be perceived as a helpful and present person than someone who is always yelling and complaining.
Gain their Trust
If a child continuously misbehaves and is disrespectful to you, he or she might have a problem with authority.
Our early experiences with authority were seared in our memory forever. It’s an unconscious process that relies on our most primitive instincts.
When we are young, we associate our first experiences with adults, our parents, with authority, love, and safety. We respect our parents because we love them. They love and protect us. Remove love, then safety and authority remain. We obey our teachers because we trade our security and our well-being against their rules. But when a child has known abuse or negligence with one or more persons (it could also be a child care professional), only authority remains.
“Social contract” has been used by philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau, to explain why people gather in the form of Society. For Hobbes, the “natural condition of mankind” is chaotic. It’s a state of permanent war. We transition from the pure state of nature to the state of society to ensure our security. For John Hobbes, one of the fathers of Liberalism, Humans would never submit to authority if it didn’t guarantee harmony and security.
How could a child respect adults if he or she sees them as illegitimate and tyrannical? If our presence is perceived as a source of danger and stress? It doesn’t take long to lose a child’s trust, but it’s a long quest to regain legitimacy in his eyes.
Pay Attention to Rythm
Remember your years in kindergarten when your attention-span was twenty minutes at best. How were our teachers doing to organize the class?
We would start a day playing with our mates. Then the teacher was calling our attention with a song and invited us to sing along. It was a warm-up to prepare us to join the class. On the contrary, before taking a nap, she would instead read a book to calm us down.
Each activity has a rhythm. A game starts with a warm-up; the tension increases and holds throughout the game. It reaches its peak (when the winner is declared for example) before cooling down. If your rhythm is well-orchestrated, your group should not leave talking loudly and running, but quiet and relaxed.
Working with children requires a lot of energy. The harder you’ll work on discipline, fairness, and mutual respect, the easier your job will be. Focus on creating a healthy relationship instead of wasting your time trying to control them.
With planning, rhythm, and creativity, I was able to organize the daily life of children from 5 to 17 years-old. With a clear and confident voice added to a well-built relationship, I could gain and maintain their attention. With patience and respect, we created mutual trust. If you have these essential elements, you will do wonders, effortlessly.