How To Engage Kids

  • How can I get kids to do what I want them to do?
    They just don’t seem to care.
  • How can I get kids to talk to me?
    They never seem to listen.
  • How can I get kids to like me?
    They act like I’m worthless.

These are questions and responses we hear frequently from parents and teachers. They want to know how to connect with kids. Our success in working with children comes from a simple concept that’s rooted in a complex skill set: If we want to connect with kids, we first have to show them that they matter to us.

“Children don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

Kids don’t care what skills, talents, wisdom or experiences we want to share with them until they know that we care about them. Sounds simple enough but how does one go about showing kids that we care about them? One thing is for sure: it’s not about just telling them.

We have found several behaviors that have worked for us in creating caring relationships with kids. These work with kids of most any age, though some modifications may be in order to maximize the connection with different aged kids.

  1. Listen more than you talk. Make sure that during short or long interactions with kids that you are letting them talk more than you are. That might mean you have to save up some of your comments for another interaction but in the long run, kids will feel heard.
  2. Physically get down to kids’ level. Squat or sit down when talking with them. Don’t just bend over but assume a collaborative position during conversations or interactions.
  3. Make appropriate eye contact. Know when to look kids right in the eye but also know when to look away. Too much eye contact may be interpreted as scrutiny. A downward glance can often suggest thinking about what they are saying and minimize the chance that you are staring at them.
  4. Make appropriate physical contact. Dr. Peter Alsop, a wonderful entertainer of kids and adults, once said that kids need to experience appropriate touch from adults if they are to be able to know what inappropriate touch is. Much sensitivity must go into this item as many kids (and adults) are very uncomfortable with touch. We have found that putting out one’s hands, palms up, can invite a handshake, hand embrace or hand slap. The same goes for the “high five” motion of raising one’s hand, though the expectation of the reciprocal behavior can also seem to push the connection too soon. Hugs, squeezes, and other more direct gestures of affection can also be off-putting and can often backfire. Sometime a gentle shoulder bump, foot tap or arm pat can be used to convey affection with boundaries.
  5. Finally, smile. We’re amazed at how difficult this is for many people to use in a genuine way with kids. Finding that smile that says, “I’m glad to be with you right now” is neither passive nor condescending. A gentle, authentic facial gesture of affection is a powerful tool for communication, and not only with kids.

Showing kids that you care about them, about who they are (not just what they do) may be the most important skill set for adults who wish to engage kids. Notice the adults around you who seem to connect with kids. We’ll bet that they have mastered this fine art of conveying affection with boundaries. It’s a form of intimacy between an adult and a child and it carries a power that goes in both directions.


January 2, 2010. Uncategorized.


  1. Aaron Freed replied:

    I really like the point about making appropriate eye contact. I have many students that feel threatened by what they would term as “staring” even if it was just a few seconds. Bringing that together with being at their level can totally create a more comfortable situation for some students. Teaching band like I do I don’t have a lot of chances to do this. The podium can be a tough spot to leave, but I try to move around the room, or at least change the room around every now and then to remind kids that its not all about me up front.

  2. Megan Radtke replied:

    I love the idea of teachers listening more than they talk. At meetings, in the teachers lounge, and in graduate classes with other teachers it is obvious that teachers like to talk. We have many experiences in education and in life that we feel would be helpful for others to hear, especially when working with children. As a high school teacher I often think, “if only they knew______ then they would _____.” If I know something the students don’t, I feel it’s the right thing to give them the appropriate information. However, students want to be heard. As educators it is not our job to pass on wisdom or share experiences with the hope that students will remember and learn from our experiences and advice. The reality is that students need to explore and discover for themselves. We are educators to facilitate and manage in the classroom, not to preach. After typing this response I am going to type this reminder to put by my desk in my classroom: “Listen more than you talk.”

  3. Cortney Cegla replied:

    Cortney Cegla

    I really liked this post. It was perfect for teachers….all statements are showing you care in different ways. Getting down to their level is probably the hardest one I see with teachers. I have also been one who loves to sit on the floor with the students…I like being on the floor with them while reading a story…it gives me a close proximity when working with them. A smile always shows you care! “High Fives” are a great way to start building that close relationship especially with the boys!

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