Four days went by as Fort Lauderdale city parking officers slapped tickets on a parked car before someone took a closer look and noticed the driver still in the vehicle—dead.
Just think about it! Five parking tickets piled up on the vehicle’s windshield over the course of four days before the man was found inside! (The 62-year-old man had passed away from natural causes at least three days before being discovered.) Hard to believe it, right? How in the world did the parking meter attendants not see that someone was at the steering wheel while writing the citations—all five of them?
This outrageous story causes me shake my head in unbelief, but it also compels me to stop and ask—how good am I at noticing people, particularly the children in my classroom?
Do I notice my children?
It’s a very important question, because to be noticed is to be loved.
Invisibility is an epidemic today. It’s widespread, it’s deadly, and no one is immune. You don’t need to go far to find proof. Just go to the nearest mall and look at the couples, families, or friends in the food court. You’ll see people staring at their screens instead of looking at each other. They’re at the same table, yet in different universes; they are within each other’s reach, yet unseen and unavailable.
Deep in the heart of every human being is the God-ordained desire to be noticed, discovered, and fully accepted. The opposite side of this desire is the fear of becoming a nonperson, a shadow, a ghost.
I have a 3-year-old son, and a phrase I hear from him often is this, “Watch THIS, Daddy!”
He’s about to skip over a branch on the ground…”Watch this, Daddy!”
He’s about to strike a powerful superhero pose…”Watch this, Daddy!”
He’s about to draw a picture…”Watch this, Daddy!”
He’s about to jump off the couch…”Watch this, Daddy!”
He’s about to go through a puddle on his tricycle…”Watch this, Daddy!”
What’s behind his plea? A desperate need to be noticed. He needs someone to be an eye-witness to his moments, achievements, and adventures.
Watch this, Daddy!
He needs to know that his life matters and that it doesn’t go unnoticed.
Watch this, Daddy!
Plain and simple: a life unnoticed is no life at all.
Your students won’t ever tell you this, but like all human beings, they long to be known. They desperately want to feel that they and their life stories matter. That’s why it’s so important that you take every chance you get to enter into their world and explore it.
I know that most of us see our students only on Sunday or at special events—the two busiest and craziest times in our schedule. This means that if we are not careful, we can fill the heads of our children with knowledge, their tummies with snacks, their hands with crafts and prizes, their time with fun activities, and yet, after all of that, still send them home empty-hearted.
Now some of us may really long to see our children better, and make them feel important as individuals, but we just don't really know how to make that happen. If that is how you feel - this blog post is for YOU!! Here are 12 small actions you can take to make sure that no child feels invisible and insignificant while they’re in your care.
1. Learn Names
Is there anything more important and basic than learning our students’ names early in the school year? Dale Carnegie said, “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
Make it your goal to have all your students’ names learned by the end of the third week. There are lots of practical strategies for learning names: wear name tags, play name games, use students’ names frequently, and of course, PRACTICE! PRACTICE! PRACTICE!
One good way to learn names and match them to the faces is to have children fill out one of the many variations of All About Me templates. Here are just a few examples:
Once the students complete their All About Me worksheets, staple them to the wall and attach their photographs (each template provides room for a headshot). This simple exercise will give you a better understanding of your students, help you remember their names and make the classroom feel like home. After all, home is where your photo is, right? Also, it will give all the students a fun way to learn about each other and find all the things they have in common.
2. Pray for your students by name
Prayer is remembering someone before God, and it is one of the highest forms of caring. (It’s also hard work, so don’t be surprised if it doesn’t come naturally to you.) When you pray for your students by name during the week, you think about them, your heart softens and opens towards them, and you allow God to drop insight, wisdom, and compassion into your spirit that will help you love that specific child well.
3. Clear your mind
I know you’re a busy person with a million things on your mind and your to-do list. Especially on Sunday. It’s easy to drag the weight of the world with you into your classroom.
However, your students should never see a grumpy, irritable, no-fun adult running their class. After all, you may be the only representation of Jesus that they have in their life. That’s why it’s absolutely necessary that you take time to clear your mind and emotions from all distractions, and focus on one goal—loving children well.
The best way to do this is to establish a simple ritual. Perhaps your drive to church could be your time to declutter your head, fill your spirit, and readjust your focus. You can do it by listening to worship music and singing along. You can do it by praying, or simply by driving in complete silence, giving God room and time to speak to your heart.
It could be a certain spot, perhaps your classroom door, where you would pause for a moment to remind yourself that no “junk” is allowed beyond this point. Perhaps that’s where you would say a short prayer leaving your cares, worries and hectic schedule at the feet of Jesus.
Or it could be a certain time that you predetermine in advance, a cutoff point where you know that you need to stop whatever you’re doing and switch your focus, fostering a warm and welcoming spirit.
If it’s between the kids finding you all frazzled and disoriented, trying to figure out how that magic trick or science experiment works, or you warmly welcoming them and engaging them into a conversation from the moment they step into your classroom, choose the latter. Drop the magic trick, no matter how cool it might be, but never the child. Believe me, ten years later kids won’t remember your tricks, experiments, or object lessons, but they will remember how you made them feel in your classroom. And the memory of that feeling will either draw them closer to the heart of God or push them further away.
4. Come early
Some people make the mistake of thinking that their teaching responsibility starts when the church service starts. As a result, they show up five minutes before the service begins and think nothing of it. The truth is, if you want to do a truly great job, not only teaching Bible stories and playing games, but making children feel loved and important, you have to come early. At a minimum you need 15-20 minutes to get accustomed to your classroom, set up your supplies, adjust the temperature and the lighting, and connect with your teammates before the first child arrives. The earlier you come to your classroom, the more stress you eliminate, the more fully you’ll be able to engage the kids and as a result, the more enjoyment you will receive from being with them.
5. Observe your students
As the shepherd of their souls, you’re somewhat of a detective. You will be surprised how much you can learn about your children through simple observation. Study them. Pay attention to their mood and reactions. Watch their interaction with peers. Notice their language. Listen to their stories. Take note of how they play and who they’re friends with. Try to figure out their temperament and personality. Pick up on the unspoken cues we call non-verbal communication.
When you see one of your students withdrawn or upset, find out what is going on. Take the student aside and ask probing questions to get to the heart of the matter. Show sympathy and let students know that you are there to listen when they need you. Often just the simple act of taking the time to listen is enough to show a student you care.
Keep in mind that the end goal of observation is always action. After you have assembled the clues, listen to your heart and follow the prompts of the Holy Spirit. You might joke with this child, give a high five to that child, offer to pray for another child and on and on and on. This is love in action, but it all starts with the practice of observation.
6. Talk to them
No matter what your Sunday looks like, make sure that you do not overcrowd your schedule to the point that you don’t have any time to greet each child and simply talk to them. Talking to your students can range from a conversation about their dog or favorite sports team to something as simple as asking how their week has been.
Don’t underestimate the power of a simple conversation. It will open the lines of communication between you and the students, letting you get to know them personally and letting them get to know you. Most importantly, these conversations will help create a safe, loving, and relaxed environment for your students, letting them see that you’re approachable and excited to have a role in their lives.
In order for a good conversation to take place, we need to be curious about the lives of our children. Just like tourists or missionaries go to a foreign place and they’re intrigued and fascinated by the people whose language, traditions and way of life they don’t understand, we need to be fascinated by the children we minister to. Each child is their own unique universe and one of the best ways to explore this new territory is by asking thought-provoking, yet unthreatening questions. Here are some examples:
- What is your favorite hobby or game? How and why did you start this hobby?
- What do you like the most about being a 5th grader?
- What do you hate the most about being a 5th grader?
- What is your favorite gadget? Why?
- If you were a teacher, and the kids in your class would not listen to you, what would you do?
- What is the hardest thing about being a kid?
- What is your nickname? How did you get that nickname?
- If you could change your name, what would you name yourself?
- Who do you look up to? Who is your hero?
- What animal would you like to be, if you weren’t human?
- If you could be invisible for a week, what would you do?
- Do you believe in God?
- When did God become real to you?
- Is there something about God that doesn't make sense to you?
- What is the one thing you would like to learn how to do and why?
- What are five things you wish I knew about you?
- If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
7. Love the circle
No matter what size room you have or what furniture you have in that room, be sure to tap into the power of the circle. I suggest that you regularly take time to have everyone sit in a circle and participate in a guided conversation. You can have a soft toy (class mascot) or a silly toy (rubber chicken) or another object that children can hold and pass. When the object comes to the person, it’s their turn to talk. (You might want to have one question that everyone answers.) While one person talks, everyone else listens—with their ears and their eyes. Circle time is a perfect opportunity to train children in self-control, respect, expressing themselves, and listening.
No need to draw this time out and wear the children out, but you do want to give them plenty of time to talk and listen. If you do it regularly, this “family talk time,” can become something that they’re looking forward to. You don’t even need to be creative with this time. Every week kids can share a highlight from the previous week or something that they’re looking forward to in the coming week, or one way they saw God work in, through or around them.
During this time you might also want to ask about prayer concerns and then pray for the children. Follow up the next week on whatever the prayer requests were. Let kids know that you’ve been praying for them.
8. Notice the quiet
We all know that children have different personalities. Some are more boisterous, outgoing, and fun. They ask questions, they tell stories, they fool around, they eagerly participate in games and skits—all of which makes it easy for us to give them the majority of our time and attention. However, we must also remember those children who are shy, reserved, and quiet. For such children it is a common experience to feel somewhat wary or nervous when meeting unfamiliar people or encountering new situations. Some may experience fear and anxiety in social contexts to a degree that hinders their abilities to interact with other children. You might be tempted to help these children by encouraging them to speak up, act in skits, work in groups with classmates, answer a question, or help you with song motions in front of the class. What you may not realize is that these ways of helping often accomplish the opposite of what you were aiming for because they represent significant causes of stress for shy children.
Because of how much our culture values extroversion and views shyness as an undesirable trait that needs to be fixed, it would be worthwhile to read THIS excellent article written by a counselor and educator who happens to be the parent of two shy children. It will give you a new perspective on shyness and some great tips on how to accept shy children and help them thrive in your environment.
9. Consult the experts
Parents are the experts of their children. You can learn a lot about your students from the parents. Remember, you and the parents are on the same team, and you’re pursuing the same goal—helping their children to become more like Jesus. Don’t hesitate to ask the parents for their input.
The more you communicate with your students’ families, the better you will understand your students, and the more connected your students will be at church. Make it a goal to call each family in the first 10 weeks of a school year. Share a positive observation of their child, and then ask parents/guardians what you should know about their child to best teach them.
If you’re interested in several more practical tips on establishing effective, two-way communication with parents, read THIS article.
10. Step outside of church
I dare say—attend their events. Learn what kinds of sports and extracurricular activities your students are involved in. Make it a point to attend one for each child. I know you are already committed to so much; but really, you’ll be amazed how simple and impactful that is on a child. It’s also a way to see a child in their own environment. How many times do we hear parents say, “My child is a totally different person at home than at school.” Just consider it.
One way that you could easily spend one-on-one time and get know your students is by having lunch together at their elementary school. (Be sure to first get the parents to submit to the front office a permission letter that authorizes you to eat lunch with their child.) Make it extra special by bringing them a lunch of their choice from a local fast food restaurant. You can eat too, or you can choose not to eat, and just focus on conversation. Either way, you will get to know your students, make them feel cherished, and bring God’s presence into their lives in a very meaningful and tangible way. And they will get a huge kick out of it (and lots of questions later from their curious friends)!
11. REMEMBER SPECIAL DAYS
Try your best to remember your student's special occasions—both happy and sad. Each child has milestones like birthday, accepting Christ, baptism, graduation, preparing for a surgery, losing a loved one, moving out of state and so on. These are the times when each child needs a little extra attention and love. View these times as entry points into a child's life, an invitation to make them feel special and valued. A handwritten note from you will remind them that they're loved and celebrated and will assure them that they're not alone. You can't imagine what impact a few lines in the card may have on your students. Some of them will hang on to your handwritten messages for the entire year, or even longer.
In an age of emails and instant messages, it is the handwritten note that counts. So stock up on some cool stamps and envelopes. Get that pen out and make someone's day by writing them encouraging message.
12. Check yourself
Try this self-awareness test. Create a three-columned chart on a piece of paper or on a simple table/spreadsheet on the computer.
In the left column, write your students’ names in the order in which you remember them. (Just this alone is interesting. Who do you remember first? Who do you struggle to remember?)
In the middle column, write down everything that you know about each child—likes and dislikes, hobbies and interests, fears and dreams, family situation, and special needs.
In the third column, put a checkmark if you have talked with that student about this piece of knowledge. This will help you recognize how well you know your students, and—perhaps more importantly—how well they know that you know them!
For students you struggled to remember, or for ones you didn’t know as much about, make a commitment to connect with them in the next few Sundays. Remember, if you continue to see your students as a group, you will be focusing only on the group personality and missing the individuals.
Most adults don’t make the effort to truly see children. Be the exception to the rule. Do whatever it takes to make sure that the word “unnoticed” and the word “children” are never used in the same sentence when someone talks about your kids.
So, there you have it—12 ways to notice your students and build positive relationships with them. Chances are right now you’re feeling overwhelmed. I am already swamped and can’t seem to get things done, and now you’re asking me to do 12 more things?! No, just one. Pick the easiest one or the one that calls your name and start practicing it until it becomes a habit, then you may desire to choose one more. You’ll be surprised at the difference one little change practiced over time can accomplish. Small and simple changes are often the best way forwards.
If you liked this article, be sure to also check out 12 WAYS TO REALLY LOVE YOUR CHILDREN for a comprehensive guide to shepherd the hearts of your students well.
And if you like this article so much that you want to buy me a cup of coffee, I won't say NO. (You can send a cup of my favorite mocha HERE.) Thank you so much!