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Connecting With Kids

Updated: Mar 3

How to truly meet them where they are in order to propel them forward - creating safety, confidence, and support in the modern child through mindfulness.

Before we start off this think-piece, I would like to address the obvious elephant in the room. I am freshly 26 years old, and I don't have any kids of my own yet, so I couldn't possibly understand the intricate balance of being a full-time modern parent or teacher firsthand, nor will I claim to here. This piece is simply my observations after years of being a nanny, working at summer camps, volunteering and hosting workshops for kids of all ages through many modalities. Some of this also comes from my Psychology degree. While I may not be a parent yet myself, I would like you to consider the hundreds of kids I have "had" over the years and how near they have been to my heart ever since. I am writing this piece because parents need to hear it. Guardians need to hear it. Teachers need to hear it. We need to hear it.

Connection With Others Starts With Connection To Self

Over the last few weeks, a common theme has been popping up in conversations throughout my life. "You are so good with kids," "I don't know how you're able to do it," "This is the most engaged I have ever seen this group," "I just don't have patience like that," and the list goes on. Parents, teachers, afterschool leaders, and everyone in-between has been reaching out to me with praise of my ability to handle the noise, the mess, and the drama that are children these days. Although I have the nickname "Mary Poppins" and "Fairy Godmother" in some homes, I am here to tell you there is nothing special about me. There is, however, a special ingredient that I promise you will work, for any age for any day, if you are able to do it. Love. You have to approach these kids with Love at ALL times. Even when it's hard. Even when you feel like you can't. You have to, you absolutely must.

In order for us busy adults to understand and apply this Universal truth to the kids in our lives, we first need to understand some things about children. These kids that we get the blessing to experience are the closest thing to Source you're going to get in human form. All children, regardless of background, have just come into this game we call life - their point of view is a fresh perspective full of vibrancy, emotion, and creativity. They are naturally curious, naturally brave, vibrational beings. We (the seasoned humans) are the ones responsible for maintaining this vibrancy and showing them how to use their unique gifts and outlooks to propel our society forward. We are also the ones responsible when something goes awry. And we as a collective need to start having these conversations and investing our time (and money) back into our children.

No child is a bad child:

We need to have a few things in our back pocket before we continue. Human behavior (regardless of age) is a combination of genetic makeup and an individual's unique life experiences. That 5 year-old child isn't plotting against or targeting you when they burst into a tantrum or begin showing a problem behavior. What that child is, is new here. They are having a big feeling and they don't know how to navigate that yet. This might be a brand new feeling or situation entirely. Their brain is not going to be fully developed until they are at least 25 years old - as guardians we are responsible for creating a space where mistakes can be learned from. They do not know what is expected of them just yet and, if they do, they usually don't understand why or how to pull it off themselves. And if we are being really honest with ourselves, we sometimes struggle with this too.

I understand that sometimes adults don't have time to explain things to them...but usually we do and are just choosing not to. Maybe we don't really know why? Maybe it's just the way it always was. Before we know it, "because I said so" is rolling off our tongue just like it did to us all those years ago. Sometimes we need to check ourselves and make sure we have done our due diligence on getting down to their level first. So let's get into the nitty gritty of how to do that, shall we?

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself:

A common saying back in my day, maybe yours too. And not a very nice one at that. But seriously, we need to make sure that any attitude we have acquired throughout the day (or week, or year) is checked in before we walk through that door.

Kids are like an emotional absorbing sponge. Without us saying a word, they can intuitively pick up on how we are feeling and they react with the tools they have according to how their life experience has taught them so far. Kids are also extremely in-tune with adult body language, tonality, and words for survival-based reasons. It is in their genetic makeup to be watching out for any signs of anger (seen as danger) in their caretakers because their body is hardwired to look for safety. Part of working with children is being an in-tune adult who can regulate their emotions quickly. This way, we are ready to respond to all situations rather than reacting from stress or fear. An unregulated adult is an unsafe adult. Unsafe adults aren't trusted or listened to. It is as clear as that.

Even if we try to hide it, oftentimes our subconscious feelings begin to sneak out through our actions, patience level, and ability to cope with triggers. Like a snowball, our complex feelings spread throughout the group and suddenly we have individual problem behaviors popping up all over the place. Maybe in that child's experience, shutting down completely is what makes them feel "safe" when dealing with an "angry" or "irritable" adult or guardian figure. This might also look like task avoidance or ignoring. Perhaps they diffuse their anxiety by getting up from their seat and moving over to a friend to talk or walking aimlessly at the back of the class. Maybe they have a meltdown because the feelings are just so raw and intense in their little bodies. Without mindfulness, our facial expressions, body language, and tone can take away from the true meaning we are trying to get across. It is so important that we are able to make sure our body language and "vibration" is always coming from a place of Love, openness, and curiosity to help young minds unfold this reality. This means taking that breath, trying to understand the situation from their perspective, and helping them find a solution together.

That being said, it is imperative we learn to regulate our emotions outside of these situations so that we are ready when those kids put us to the test. This means recognizing what your triggers are, when you are getting triggered, and what reactions your mind and body are having currently. From there, our task is to find self-soothing tools that we can whip out at a moment's notice. But here is the fun part, you can learn this while you're teaching it. You can be honest with them and say "hey, this is my first time trying this too but let's just see if we feel any better after taking a 10-minute break to listen to some calming music and collect our feelings." Kids don't need perfect, what they need is present.

Know How You Feel Today:

Spend 5-10 minutes alone before engaging with kids so that you are super solid on your own vibration. Are you excited today? Maybe plan an outdoor or movement-based activity. Are you feeling tired? Maybe plan a sit-down craft or reading activity. I highly recommend using your own intuition and basing your interaction off of where you truly are today. Make sure to check in with yourself throughout the day as well. Switching gears with grace is possible. If you are exhausted, don't push yourself to do more than you can. No matter where you are, what's necessary is that you maintain a stable energy of in-the-moment presence above all else.

Now, I am not saying you aren't allowed to have feelings other than joy and excitement around children. In fact, you should allow your kids to see you cry when it comes up and have other emotions too. What's important is that we let them know it's okay to have big feelings and that there are positive ways (like crying, dancing, talking with an adult, or taking a warm bath) that we can help these big feelings move peacefully through our bodies without harming ourselves or others. Watching an adult model the action of recognizing an emotion and feeling it through can be one of the most beneficial things we ever show a young person. It is also okay to let them know that today is a hard day for you, but you are so glad to be there with them. I promise what unfolds next will change your whole week.

Notice The Moments

If you know where to look, there are little moments in every minute of every day spent around kids that you can use as an opportunity for engagement. Within these little moments you have the ability to catch a glimpse into their world, into what makes them curious. The funny thing is, oftentimes these moments are seen as disobedience. Let's say you overhear a distracting conversation about frogs taking place between a group of young boys while you are trying to give out instructions. Telling them to be quiet or you will have to move their seats is ultimately going to activate some feelings amongst the group and you might have some further behavioral issues the rest of the day. If they participate in the lesson, it will be begrudgingly at best and at worst they might not participate at all. What may not seem like a big deal to us can be a really big and embarrassing deal to young impressionable minds.

Instead, tell the group of boys you are so excited they are interested in frogs and that you have a great book in the school library for them to check out as soon as we have a break from the lesson. Maybe even entice them by saying if they focus now and finish their project early, they can read through the book while others are finishing up. If you're lucky, you might even set a trend. We have to take those moments of perceived childhood disobedience and figure out ways to help propel them forward. In this calm and heart centered way, we are setting the boundary that right now we are focused on this important task but that your thoughts and feelings are valued too and I want to help you out. Almost every time, they will feel this sincerity and do their best to stay on task.

Mindfulness is also about noticing the moments where disobedience could be a sign of something more serious to look into. Say you have a child that is lashing out at their peers with comments about their appearance. First and foremost, we need to make sure we catch these moments and address them the best we can - as leaving things left unchecked in your presence sets a precedence of unsafety. Addressing the situation includes recognizing that this child's perspective has been tainted by something. Maybe they spent a year getting bullied themselves and this is how they avoid getting bullied now. Maybe they have an older sibling that picks on their appearance at home. Instead of scolding and casting out this behavior, it's important that we take a moment to teach the lesson that's calling our name. This could be a moment for the whole class to learn about things that are within their control or not. It could lead to a beautiful conversation on boundaries or even self-image. There are so many places a conversation can go when we allow these disruptions to be moments of healing. Instead of having a daily problem behavior, you might just have a solution if you take a moment to be present with it.

Do Not Escalate:

Part of being an in-tune adult guardian when working with kids is being prepared for drama. You might get a face, an attitude, a snarky comment, a thrown object, and even a full-on fight, but your job is to be a force of stability. No matter what gets thrown your way, you must portray and truly have emotional regulation capable enough to hold space for others. You may or may not understand their situation, but your first and most important task is to validate all emotions and bring all bodies to a calm state before we can begin talking about anything. Understanding and forgiveness will come, but right now we need homeostasis.

Human bodies, especially young ones, are powerhouses of emotion. Right now, that friend taking their crayon or you not allowing them to do something is the biggest situation they have ever had to deal with before. We cannot reason with a human body that has entered fight, flight, or freeze mode. As a mindful guardian, our job is to recognize signs of behavioral shifts in our group and identify when a child might be getting close to overstimulation. If they are already past the "point of no return," then we have to meet them where they are. This does not include escalation. Maybe you have noticed this behavior building over a period of time or maybe this is completely out of the blue. All of the context clues can help us in identifying how best to proceed and you'll only see them if you're present.

Say you are getting some pretty serious attitude from a particular student. You have noticed it building over a period of time, but on the first few days or hours of class they were relatively quiet and participatory. This is a good indication that we have missed something along the way. Perhaps this student felt unseen or unheard by you at some point and this gap has been widening ever since. Now, the problem behavior is the only way they get interaction with you...but they don't see it that way. They see it as trying to gain justice over this intense feeling of being ignored. It is a cry for help. We can address the situation a few ways depending on where that child's energy is in that moment. Maybe we notice this behavior and begin shifting more focus on their positive behaviors, congratulating them for tasks well done and even giving them small responsibilities like helping to pass something out. Maybe we take the time to connect with the child one-on-one to see how the relationship can be amended. Overall, kids who feel like they have lost a part of their autonomy need to build that feeling back. Our mission is to figure out the unique fracture line in every individual relationship, if and when it shows up, and begin building from where they are.

Manners and Classroom Behavior Must Be Plain & Simple:

Every single person they interact with and every door they walk through has a completely new and confusing set of rules. Sometimes these rules can even be different amongst the same guardians on a different day. This everchanging list of rules with a range of punishments is mindboggling to say the least. Add in a bad hair day or a test result week and you're going to get a mixed bag of behavior. There are only a few "rules" in my classroom, the rest of it is behavior that I have trained. Yes, you heard that correctly, I am training your kids. But it is less intense than it seems.

Among the few rules I establish for every environment are these: respect yourself, respect others, and be curious. Just about everything you ever need could be filed away into one of those categories. We have to make sure we spend time explaining what each of our rules mean though or else the effect is lost. Respecting yourself in my classroom looks like knowing where all your belongings are and keeping track of them. We can respect others by noticing when our friend has lost something, and we can bring it back to them or a teacher. Respecting others may also look like not harming plants and animals as we go on a nature hike, not talking over other friends when they are asking a question and so forth. However, we get into the details through consistent action in the classroom.

I don't stand up in front of my kids and say "when someone is asking a question no one else should be talking" what I say instead is "I've noticed one of our friends has a question and I really want to know what it is. If we could give our friend the floor to ask so we can answer, I would love to hear other questions or ideas next." What I did here was identify and establish a few things. For one, I identified that I am trying to answer a student's question and I am having a hard time staying focused. Two, that the student who asked the question wants an answer and they might be feeling overstimulated by all the commotion along with other students trying to hear. Three, that some students are needing to feel engaged in the current conversation. Without raising my voice, placing blame, or outing any particular student, I can establish that I am bringing the focus back to a point we can all gather around and that I am also interested in what they might be talking about as well. Students hear this and genuinely get interested because I am genuinely interested. I will take the time to answer as many questions as possible before moving forward. Even the silly ones. Sometimes the silly questions are a great segway into a topic you need to bring them back to.

Respect is something that is learned and earned. We cannot expect to receive respect all the time from kids, but what we can do is use those off moments as learning opportunities. When first entering a group full of kids who have never met you before, first impressions are everything. You are a brand-new adult and they may or may not already have formed biases surrounding your appearance, gender, age, or race due to their experience or upbringing. Regardless of who we are, we need to come in with the knowledge that trust is earned and with trust comes true respect. Your first move is to identify yourself as someone they can come to with questions, problems, or concerns. Then you have to follow through with this, of course, but from there your move is to connect and have fun. Your first impressions (you get a redo every day, ya know) are crucial for building strong relationships built on trust and respect. Get to know each kid's name, greet them and ask them how they are individually as soon as you can, and ask questions about topics you know they are into right now. Share some silly things about yourself, like your favorite bug or musical instrument. Keep things calm and light, let them know that it's okay to be silly and learn things at the same time - because through fun is how we learn best after all.

Once we get all the sillies and greetings out, it's time to get down to business. Now that general trust has been established and I am seen as "relatively tolerable" at least, I announce what we are getting ourselves into that day, why they will find it totally awesome, and what the expectations are for everyone to help us make this happen. In my case, having a child ingest a wild uncooked mushroom during one of our workshops could have horrific consequences. It has yet to ever come close because before I begin throwing rules out at them, we have established a good basis of trust and respect. I spend some time highlighting the most important rules, making sure everyone understands why, and then let my behavior lead by example for the rest.

We don't spend time worrying about keeping voices down or walking in a straight line much in the forest, but I do recommend finding ways to be more lenient surrounding this all-too-common norm. Human bodies are meant to move and if you spend an exuberant amount of time trying to line kids up in a neat little row, I am wondering why alongside them. If silence and composure are what we need of them at a specific time, instead of waiting silently for 10min for everyone to cooperate - let them know, "hey, we are about to be passing by some important rooms that need our cooperation. In order for us to get from here to there we need our bodies to be calm and quiet until we get to our next location." or "I know everyone is so excited to get to our next activity, but we need our bodies to be settled before we go just so we can stay calm and safe while getting there." While this may take more time initially, it is much more well received and does not lead to lasting tension throughout the group. This is also a command that explains why we need our bodies to be settled in the first place which will lead to less frequent issues in the future.

In my Mycology 4 Kids! program, we are often at locations such as city parks or recreational centers that do not allow foraging. The way I get 20 little hands to stay off anything we find is to give the clear command at the beginning "okay guys, we are all going to have our eyes on the lookout for elusive mushrooms today and if you see one I want you to throw your hands up and yell MUSHROOM as loud as you can and everyone else can pass the information down the line. Once everyone is together, we will look at the mushroom right where it is as a group before I pick it up to show you more." If we are on game lands, kids are often responsible for keeping track of their haul of moss and mushrooms and are encouraged to share specimens amongst friends to do "further research." I take their "personal property" seriously, and if a kid runs up to me and demands to see another kid's mushrooms, we go over together and ask permission to borrow it for scientific research and then we talk about the importance of returning it. Quickly, you'll have kids sharing specimens all over the place just because you thought it was cool. Cooperation and respect is an energy that you can embody throughout every response you have. I am always looking for opportunities to say, "that's a great question, why don't you and X look at this book together and see if you find the answer" or "if you worked together do you think you could figure it out faster?" Before long, a group that has difficulty sharing can't wait to read out loud to each other and not once did I have to have a serious conversation with them.

A Final Note On Transitions:

It is important to let kids (really all people) know when transitions are about to take place. You, for example, are nearly at the end of this lecture. When I know a big change in location or activity is coming up, I make sure to let my kids know well in advance but not too far in advance as to cause anxiety. For example, if I know we are heading indoors from being outdoors playing I will give a 10-15 minute heads up that we are about to head inside to another activity. There might be some moans and groans but, if you stay positive and let them know it will be fun too, they will come around. Once the allotted amount of time has come, announce that you are "rolling out" and allow a few minutes for everyone to gather themselves and finish up conversation before announcing that a calm and quiet line needs to be formed before we continue on. Keep things light and easy going, avoid countdowns unless it is fun. Transitions are difficult, and even more difficult for children with ADD/ADHD, Autism, Anxiety, or other mental illnesses. Although science is trying to catch up, children are still not being recognized and diagnosed properly enough and signs of neurodivergence are slipping through the cracks. Before rushing a child, make sure they know how to clean something up. That child might not understand the best way to put the pieces away or how store the classroom objects. Instead of being frustrated, go around making sure everyone knows how to make this transition happen on the micro level. Once a system is established, I have almost always seen immediate positive results.

Creating Confidence:

Although I intend on writing more on this later, for now we can keep it simple. Kids are a lot smarter, stronger, and daring than we let on. Make sure you are not projecting your own insecurities and worries on to them when it comes to them trying new things or making mistakes. One of my favorite moments recently highlighted this well. There was a young girl on one of our hikes recently who expressed that she wanted to climb a particular tree. It was only a mere 2ft off the ground and so I figured she could do it with some direction, as her mom stood by watching. The little girl struggled, determined as I gave her direction, "put your right hand here, now grab there, push with your leg and pull with that arm, yes now the other!" There was a moment when she almost gave up, and I wanted to just lift her up there, but I reminded her that she had this. Again, she braced herself for the climb and hoisted herself up over the nook and on to the tree. Triumphantly, she announced that she did it and climbed off running back with the rest of the group. The mom came over to me after and said she had no idea she could do something like that. We both expressed our innate desire to jump in and do it for her, but we also understood the lesson there for us all.

I hope that this piece has offered you something to chew on, if at the very least a fresh perspective. Some may say that my teaching styles are a little eccentric, but I have seen it work time and time again. There is never a wrong time to hit the reset button and begin applying some of these techniques to your toolbelt. Always remember that you as the adult are responsible for setting the tone in your classroom or home, let that tone be Love.

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