I can only imagine what the children who walk through the door are thinking. Why do I have to do this? Will I be bored? Is it like school? Will they make me talk about feelings? Will the other kids like me? Who knows what thoughts go through their little heads! Over the years I have observed some very skillful group facilitators who are experts at putting children at ease. Whether you are facilitating a weekly group for an hour and a half or an intensive process over a longer period of time, I truly believe that some of the most important work happens within the first hour of your very first session.
Why is this time so crucial? Because it's the only chance you have to make your first impression. Adults forget that just like anyone, kids also quickly form an opinion from their first impression of you and the group. Within that short amount of time, children make decisions about whether or not they can trust you and whether or not they should stick around for the long haul. What can we do as facilitators to set the tone and create safety?
- Know their names and greet them appropriately. I make a point of reviewing the names of all of the children prior to them walking through the door. If I have a general idea of their age, gender and who will be accompanying them, I can even greet them by name as they come in. Children (and parents) feel valued and important.
- Let them join the group at their own pace. Don't get wrapped up in your own ego when you have a child who doesn't want to participate at first. It's okay - and normal. That's what icebreaker games are for. It's difficult for a child to stay defiantly seated in a corner when everyone else is having fun. Let them be, give them space, and when they feel safe they'll join in.
- Make it engaging (in other words - have fun!) If you aren't prepared for fun, or don't think it's important, then don't work with kids. Have a slew of games ready for the first group. Make it so engaging that kids want to come back.
- Don't jump right into the serious stuff. It's disturbing to me when I am in a group and within the first ten minutes the facilitator starts talking about the specific topic of the group (grief, addiction, anger issues). It's just plain scary to kids. They don't know you yet, or each other. Have some fun first and trust will be built. Then you can go there.
- Be Inclusive without being pushy. If you do have a child that is reluctant, let them ease in but every once in a while, invite them back. Let kids know the whole group wants them to be involved. Be mindful of kids who are quiet, or not getting a turn. Make sure everyone has a chance to be a participant.
- Be in charge without being authoritarian. Don't make the mistake of thinking that because you have a kids group and you want to have fun with them, it means that they are in charge. They're not. They don't want to be. You be the one in charge of the games, the pace, and the rules, but in a clear, respectful way.
- Make them feel special. There are so many ways to do this. Remind them that while they are with you, they are VIP's. Compliment individual kids and the group as a whole. Let them know that the time you spend with them is going to be a mix of learning, talking and lots of fun. Talk about how important it is that play is part of your group. Children will realize that you "get it." Incorporating play is about respecting children.
Following these simple steps can go a long way in setting it up for the rest of the process. Above all else, be sure that you follow through on promises made in the first session. If you told them there would be time for play and recreation, make it a priority. If it's a group without fun, then it's not for kids!
Stay tuned for future posts on making group engaging!