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Keeping Kids Engaged: Effective Facilitation Of Educational Support Groups For Children

April 17th, 2012 – Posted by Betty Ford Center in BFC Insights
Tags: plantingseeds


For those of us who run educational support groups for school-age children, having an amazing activity with an incredible message doesn’t always mean that kids will be interested or that they will “get” it. The key to a successful activity is more in the delivery than anything else.

Anyone who has ever worked with elementary age children knows that it is not as easy as it sounds. The best laid plans can easily fall apart, and before you know it, you’re a group facilitator that has lost the group. Needless to say, it can feel frustrating to look around at a roomful of people who only come up to your chin, who haven’t yet passed the third grade, and realize that with all of your wisdom and experience with facilitation, the kids are running the show!

In my work with kids ages seven to twelve in the Children’s Program, my job title may be “counselor” but I am also an educator. In addition to offering kids a supportive environment where they feel safe to share feelings, I am also teaching “lessons” on self-care and problem solving. As a teacher of my group, it’s my responsibility to create the best environment for learning that I can. This can be a challenge, but remembering some key points about how children learn can help along the way:

Children learn best when they are excited and motivated to listen and learn.
At the beginning of each activity, get kids excited about what they will be learning! Grab their attention and create anticipation of what is in store. Use of body language, tone of voice and energy level all set the stage for the rest of the activity. Speaking too softly or with no energy can create an environment that is non-engaging. As adults, how many of us enjoy listening to a 45-minute lecture given by a speaker, reading the material, in a monotone voice?

Children learn best when they have the opportunity for success.
It is important for children to feel empowered and successful. Create an environment where kids succeed. Ask questions that you know they will be able to answer in front of the group. Modify questions to meet the developmental needs of kids. Children ages seven to twelve are concrete in their thinking, though kids in the upper age range are slowly moving toward abstract thinking skills. If a younger child struggles to answer an open-ended question, reframe with a closed one. Speak to children in a way that conveys confidence in their ability. Give them options that allow for success.

Children learn best when the activity has an element of surprise.
The lesson should not be laid out in front of them, children should experience it as they go. Too many times adults over-explain things to kids, boring them and guaranteeing that by the time the activity starts, interest is lost. The worst thing to do is to tell children exactly what they will be learning at the beginning of the activity. By allowing them to experience it, their comprehension of the material is enhanced.

Children learn best when the activity is tangible and active.
Children need something to hold, see or experience. Because they are active by nature, children tend not to respond well to learning experiences in which they have little to do. Create activities and lessons that accommodate for all learning styles; kinesthetic, auditory and visual.

Children learn best when an activity has a beginning, middle and an end.
Every activity should have a clear beginning, middle and end. The beginning is the introduction, the part of the lesson where the facilitator creates excitement. This can also be a time where the facilitator refers back to a previous activity, linking the anticipated lesson with one they have already learned. The middle is the core of the activity, where children are actively engaged in the process. The end is often a summary of what was learned, or a quick review of the important points. Some activities come to a close on their own.

Children learn best when the activity is relevant to their own lives.
This is true for adults as well. Make the activity relevant to them. Feel free to use examples that kids may have already brought up. Connect the mind with the heart and make the activity meaningful to the group as a whole.

Children learn best when the facilitator provides open-ended questions.
Open-ended questions encourage dialogue and discussion. These types of questions are more objective and less leading than close-ended questions, which encourage “yes” or “no” answers. They typically begin with “Why” or “How” or “Tell me about that…” Older children in a group respond very well to these types of questions, and group facilitators can gain more information about a child’s life or perspective.

Children learn best when the facilitator understands that there needs to be the freedom to change the activity in the middle whenever it is appropriate.
I cannot stress this point enough! When working with kids, be prepared and flexible. A great way to tell if it’s time to change an activity mid-gear is by observing the group. Have “chair acrobats” started? Are kids wriggling around? Are kids excited, or are they not responding to questions? You may see that the group is no longer engaged, but you think to yourself, “I still have important points to teach.” Keep in mind that children can only listen to a certain point. If you have lost the group, no matter how important or relevant the rest of the information, it is time to move on.

Children learn best when the facilitator understands the audience, and makes adjustments when needed.
Be aware of the personality of the group as a whole. Some groups are very reflective, needing a good deal of time for processing in an activity. Some groups are very active, moving through the activity quickly and energetically and need less time to talk. Tailor your delivery to the needs of your audience. Is there a recurring theme in the group? It is perfectly appropriate to incorporate these issues into the activity. By doing so, you demonstrate to the group that you have been listening to their concerns, and you also make the activity relevant to their own lives.

A skilled kids’ group facilitator should be able to keep the activity moving along, following the plan, but with the flexibility and adaptability to change it if it is not meeting the needs of the group. The best activity can fall flat on its face if it is not delivered in an engaging, age-appropriate manner. My hat goes off to all professionals who create an environment of safety, support and discovery, whether it’s for a weekly one-hour educational support group, or an intensive all day process. By reflecting on how children learn, we can take steps to engage kids, enhance comprehension, and have fun while doing it!

Peggy McGillicuddy is a counselor and group facilitator, having provided advocacy and support services for young children impacted by addiction since 2000. She currently serves as a consultant and trainer for the Betty Ford Institute Children’s Program Training Academy. Peggy particularly enjoys training and teaching others to work effectively with children from a strength-based perspective.

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