TRC Read to Kids

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Monday, September 24, 2012

How to Talk with Kids

For volunteers, interacting with kids at Read-Alouds can be intimidating. Children are interested in different things than adults, their social skills aren't yet totally developed, they might not like the books or activities that are being shared with them, and it might prompt them to act out. Furthermore, the kids at TRC Read-Alouds can be even more difficult to interact with since children in unstable family situations--the very demographic TRC works with--can be particularly fidgety, distracted, and hard to engage. But kids are just people, and they want to be treated respectfully and taken seriously. This blog entry will present some ideas on how to connect with kids in conversation, earn their respect and trust, and help engage them in the Read-Aloud.

1. Before the Read-Aloud, engage children in conversation to make them feel welcome.

It's true that you may have different interests, conversational styles and backgrounds than the children you're interacting with, and this might make conversation different--but can't those things be true of anybody? Volunteers should always arrive 15 minutes early for a Read-Aloud to get set up, and part of getting ready is to help make the kids feel welcome and excited. Do this by engaging a child in conversation the way you'd engage an adult who arrived to participate in a meeting or a workshop: ask how their day is going, what they've done that day, and then listen when they answer. Talk about what books they've read recently and if you've read something good, tell the kids about it (briefly). Welcome every child to the Read-Aloud individually, using his or her name.

2. Be aware of the child/adult power dynamic--because you can be sure that the kids are!

Children don't need to be treated like a bomb that could go off at any minute or a wild animal that needs to be lured into sitting still to listen to a storybook! Take care to treat every child as your equal—ask questions that you might ask to a friend and respond to their stories the way you would reply to anyone. Don't dumb down a conversation because you're talking to a 7 year old, just be aware of what conversation topics will interest and engage them.

3. Maintain a respectful disposition towards children who are acting out.

Of course there are times when kids are acting out or talking during a story or distracting their peers, and in those instances it is appropriate for a volunteer to exercise power as an authority figure. If this happens, be sure that in your response you remain calm and gracious. One easy way to do this is to cite the TRC promises that you reviewed at the beginning of your Read-Aloud. Many kids at Read-Alouds are familiar with the language of TRC's promises.

To the child who is talking out during the story, say, "We all promised to respect and listen to one another. Can you be respectful while I am reading?"

To the child who is distracting another child by talking to or physically bothering him or her, say, "I really need your cooperation if we're going to all have fun at the Read-Aloud."

If a child really can't cooperate, respect and listen at a Read-Aloud, have a volunteer pull him or her aside and say, "I really enjoy having you at Read-Alouds and I would hate for you to have to leave. But if you're not ready to be at the Read-Aloud right now, then it's time for you to go home and I'll have to see you next time. Do you think you are ready to be part of our Read-Aloud?"

The key is to emphasize that while certain behaviors are not welcome at Read-Alouds, all children are.

4. Remember that you also promised to Listen, Respect, Cooperate and Have Fun!

It's hard to blame a kid for acting out towards an adult who treats him or her like, well, a kid. Nobody likes to be condescended to or patronized (even by someone the same age as their parent!) As a Read-Aloud volunteer, it's your job to:

Listen to what the children are saying about the books and activities. If they say they don't like one or are bored, ask what kinds of things they would rather read about and what kinds of activities they'd rather do--and then listen to their answers!

Respect their contributions. Just because a kid's story is long and rambling and seems to make no sense, bear with him or her--you might be one of the only people who does. If a child has a problem that seems unimportant--a scab, or trouble sitting still--remember times that you had something distracting you from work or whatever you needed to be doing, and do what you can within reason to help the child solve his or her problem.

Cooperate. If a kid wants to take home a give-away book that is too advanced, reach a compromise: sit him or her down and read the first few pages out loud before letting the child take it home! If a kid's approach to a craft isn't what you had in mind but isn't disruptive or problematic, why not just let him or her go in whatever direction inspiration takes?

Have fun! Don't let kids stress you out! Do your best as a volunteer to listen to, respect and cooperate with the kids at your Read-Aloud, and you will probably do great! Children are sometimes less guarded and more genuine than grown-ups, which should make them easier to talk to.

Post by The Reading Connection intern Anna McCormally.

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