Keeping Kids Engaged

I am a speech-language pathologist and I co-lead social cognition groups with an occupational therapist.   Although we only work with up to 6 kids at a time, our groups can be as challenging to keep on track as any large classroom.  Why?  Because the kids in our groups are often the very kids that are making their classrooms difficult to manage.  During any given hour, we might be met with the sillies and the wiggles, the inflexible and the distracted and occasionally the just plain defiant. So how do we do it?  Well, the best that we can… and most days we feel pretty successful.  Here are the tips that we have found most helpful:

  1. Animation – no, I don’t mean we have the kids watch a lot of animated cartoons (although some of them can be great for teaching social concepts).  I mean that we as leaders have to keep the animation level high!  We need to keep the kids’ attention by being entertaining.   When we are clearly enjoying ourselves and enjoying the kids, they tend to stay more engaged.  Also, because we are trying to make very subtle social cues more apparent, we often exaggerate those cues to an almost cartoonish level.  It’s goofy, but it works.

  2. Humor – Meeting difficult behavior with threats or stern responses often fuels the fire of our defiant group members.  Instead, we have found that we disarm them best with a humorous response.  This often catches the culprit off guard and returns the attention of the rest of the group back to the teachers.

  3. Catch phrases – During our groups we are often trying to teach kids more appropriate social behaviors than those that come naturally to them.  We have found that naming the behaviors with a Social Catch Phrase gets their attention, reinforces the salient concept and aids generalization.  One of our favorites is “Teachers Tell, Friends Ask.”  This catch phrase helps kids remember that teachers are the ones who can use commands.  Kids need to use “question words.”  This goes for both teacher interactions and peer interactions and goes a long way toward keeping the mood positive.

  4. Role Play – teaching kids new responses in the middle of an emotionally charged moment is almost impossible.  They are too invested in their perspective and too defensive to hear an alternative view.  Instead, we practice new responses/behaviors through engaging (and sometimes silly) Role Play.  The key is for the adults to act out the inappropriate behavior and have the kids stop the action by saying “cut” when they see things going awry.  Then the kids tell the adults how to repair the scene and watch as things go more smoothly.  When kids get a turn, we focus on the appropriate behaviors and attach those catch phrases when applicable.

  5. Catch ‘em doing the right thing – The kids we work with often have significant difficulties with impulse control and/or reading social cues.  They get it wrong a LOT, but they also get it RIGHT a lot.!  For the one time that Johnny blurted out something inappropriate, he may have inhibited 20 or 30 thoughts and kept them in his head, so we try really hard to notice when Johnny IS managing his impulses and to praise him for it.  This requires vigilance and a willingness to spot even the tiniest positives, but over time it really pays off!

So those are my Top 5 tips.  I only wish that they worked 100% of the time.  They certainly do not!  In fact, we group leaders are updating our bag of tricks all the time and are always happy to hear from others what is working for them.  That’s why we are excited to be a part of this wonderful project, World Class Teachers Tip Competition sponsored by The Bloggers Lounge and World Class Teachers.  I plan to read lots of entries and I hope you will too!!

Karen Head

Speech-Language Pathologist


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