Talking to kids — tips from a MAP preschool teacher
by Miami Autumn, July 2020
When I first began teaching preschool, I was incredibly awkward and shy around the children I was caring for. I just had no idea what to say or how to behave. It took me quite a while before I really felt comfortable around them.
Something I've realized talking to MAPs online is that a lot of them experience the same awkwardness and nervousness around children as I did. So, I decided to make this short post to share some things that I learned as a preschool teacher that helped me interact more-comfortably with the children in my care and with any other children. I've broken it down into three sections: nonverbal communication, verbal communication, and managing MAP feelings.
Preface: When is it appropriate to interact with a child?
This is a tricky thing for a lot of people, not just MAPs. A good rule of thumb is: If you wouldn't interact with an adult in the same situation, then don't interact with a child either. If you have some mutual connection with them (e.g., you're friends with their dad), then it is generally okay to have casual interactions with them. But, if the child is a stranger to you (e.g., a cute kid at the supermarket), it's generally best not to say anything — you probably wouldn't say anything if they were an adult, so don't spark up an interaction just because they are a kid (people might think it's weird). That said, it's totally fine to have very casual interactions with strangers. E.g., if you're waiting in line at the market and the adult in front of you is wearing the logo of your favorite sports team, it's pretty normal to say something like, “hey, go Lakers, am I right?” It's probably fine to say something like that to a child too. But, keep in mind that a lot of kids probably won't want to talk to someone who is just looking for any excuse to interact. Keep it cool and casual.
I. Nonverbal communication
Children's first impression of us is often the way we approach them. If we walk up-close and stand over them, it could be intimidating and shut-down the interaction. If you want to keep the interaction positive and comfortable for everyone, you're going to want to consider these few tips:
Always approach children from the front, not from behind. This allows the child to see you and predict your movements.
Keep a comfortable distance between the two of you, about the same distance you would keep with an adult (a meter or so). As you get to know the child better, they will feel more comfortable getting closer to you. It's important to respect children's personal space and boundaries.
If they are significantly shorter than you (e.g., a toddler or preschooler), it's a good idea to squat down or sit down so that your eyes are at the same level when you make eye contact. This creates a more-respectful atmosphere and lets the child know that you see them as your equal.
Skip the baby-voice. It's quite natural to speak more gently when talking to children (often higher pitch, softer words, etc.), and there's no issue with that. Just don't go all “goo-goo gaa-gaa” with them. Talk to them respectfully.
Give the child your undivided attention. If there are other distractions going on, finish them up before beginning/continuing your interaction with the child. E.g., if someone is texting you, tell them that you will text them back later. Then, you can talk to the child without worrying about having to text someone back also.
Be a good listener. Listen and attempt to understand everything the child is saying before responding. Never interrupt them, and never make assumptions about what you think they are going to say — just listen to them.
II. Verbal communication
Trying to muster the confidence to squeak out those first few words can be terrifying, especially if they are a child who you are attracted to. But, keep it realistic: what's the worst that could happen? The child will ignore you? Think you're creepy? Walk away from you? I've had all of the above happen on multiple occasions. It hurts, but it's important not to take it personally. When you finally do get those first words out, here's some ideas of what to talk about and how:
Talk about something in your immediate environment, i.e., something that both you and the child can see/hear/touch/etc. This makes the conversation more-relevant to both you and the child — it's something that both of you can relate to. E.g., MAP: “Did you hear that siren? What kind of car do you think it was?” Child: “An ambulance!” MAP: “I bet so! What do you think the ambulance is doing?” Child: “I think someone got hurt.” MAP: “You're probably right. Ambulances are for medical emergencies.”
Narrate whatever is happening. It sounds like it would be redundant, but it's surprising how naturally this communication form works. Simply speak aloud whatever is going on in the environment. This style works especially well with infants and toddlers since they are still learning associations between words and events, but it works well with preschoolers and older kids as well, as a way to validate their experiences and begin conversation about them. E.g., if a toddler stacks six blocks atop one another, you can say something like “you stacked six blocks!” Pro-tip: this is also a GREAT replacement for saying things like “good job,” which are relatively impersonal. If a child achieves something, rather than saying “good job,” you can simply repeat their accomplishment back to them and let them know that they accomplished it. In theory, it helps them take pride in their own accomplishments rather than seeking approval from others. If you'd like to read more about this, I'd recommend checking out this brief article: https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/five-reasons-stop-saying-good-job/
Ask open-ended questions about something immediate in the environment. This provokes the child's personal expression and creativity by allowing them to answer your question however they want to. I'd recommend checking out this website for some excellent examples of open-ended questions: https://minds-in-bloom.com/8-questions-to-ask-children-about-their/ Pro-tip: never assume you know what a child is drawing; ALWAYS ASK. If you assume wrong, it could be very offensive to the child.
Ask about the child themself. Let's be real — most people love talking about themselves. Asking the child about themself and their life is a reliable way to shift the conversation into something more meaningful. Some good ways to make this transition are with “I noticed that...” or “I see that...” statements followed by a question. E.g., MAP: “I noticed that you have a cat on your shirt; are cats your favorite animal?” Child: “Yeah!” MAP: “Awesome! I like cats. Do you have any pet cats at home?” Child: “No, but I have a dog.” MAP: “Dogs are cool! What's your dog's name?” ... etc.
III. Managing MAP feelings
Actually building up the courage to begin an interaction with a child can be daunting. Even non-MAPs often get nervous interacting with kids. In fact, I still get nervous interacting with kids, even after working with dozens of kids as a preschool teacher. It's okay to feel nervous; it's just important not to over-catastrophize the situation when, in reality, as long as you remain appropriate in your interaction, the worst that can happen is you just have an awkward interaction and then go about your day. It's not a big deal. Try not to over-think it, okay? And, if it is any comfort to you, you should know that most kids I know are very non-judgmental (:
For some MAPs, our sexual orientation makes interactions even more difficult because we are also constantly questioning ourselves and our intentions. I promise you — it's OKAY to talk to kids. As long as the interaction stays mutual, non-sexual, and non-abusive, then there is nothing wrong with it. And, the child probably doesn't know that you're attracted to them anyway, so there is no use fearing about that. Regardless of whether you're attracted to men, women, boys, girls, dogs, or squirrels, you have just as much right as anyone else to have safe interactions with people you care about.
A lot of MAPs I've spoken to have worries that they may feel “tempted” to act inappropriately with a child in certain situations. My best advice for these situations is to avoid them, but that's not always possible. My next-best advice is to simply focus on being present in the moment — focus on the child and on the environment. If you're playing with a child, ask yourself, “what is the child experiencing right now?” Better yet, “what is the child learning right now?” And, answer these questions as thoroughly as you can. E.g., imagine a two-year-old child is stacking blocks atop one another — what are they learning? I'd say, they're learning about the force of gravity and how it affects the blocks' ability to balance; they're learning about how to move their own body in a way to stabilize their muscles in just the right position to stack the next block where it needs to be in order to balance. When you think about situations from this angle, one of learning and development, sexual “temptations” often become a thing of the past. And, if they persist, you can always politely excuse yourself for a moment while you calm down.
Other “safety precautions” you can consider if you are concerned about your ability to behave appropriately: a) Avoid being alone with a child you're “tempted” to act sexually with; bringing someone along with you, even if they're just listening in on a phone call, can help you feel more empowered to refrain from inappropriate contact. Even bringing along a second child can help mitigate feelings of “temptation.” b) Avoid locations that could be “tempting” to you; some MAPs feel “tempted” by being in a child's bedroom or by being in another secluded area with a child. If it may be “tempting,” avoid it. c) Avoid affection with kids that makes you feel “tempted.” Personally, I think any kind of affection that isn't sexual is perfectly appropriate for kids, but, if you feel that it may make you feel “tempted” to act in inappropriate ways, then avoid it. Draw a line and stick to it. For some people, the line may be at kissing; for others, it may be at hugging; and others will have different lines.
Of course, this is all only scratching the surface of how and why to interact with children, but I hope that it is helpful nonetheless. Perhaps I will make a follow-up post with more details some day (:
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please feel free to message me on MAP Support Club or Virped.