Communicating With Children

By Matthew Surber

Every year as I begin planning staff training, I prioritize activities that require certifications and licensing, but I really wish I could spend more time working with staff members on their communication skills.

This year, I commit to focus on the foundational tools of good communication in three major areas:

  • Who you talk to
  • How you talk
  • What you say.

Many messages tend to get muddled at the most inconvenient times, and a poor retelling of a scenario has the potential for disaster. As such, this is what I want staff members to know when talking to campers:

Who You Talk To
Names are of the utmost importance when communicating with anyone. Taking the time to learn names can be both tedious and frustrating, but I have discovered techniques to ease the process.

Use the name.
It’s not a new suggestion, but here is one that is infinitely valuable. Use that person’s name again and again, and again, and dare I say, again. Each time you use it you affirm that person’s self-worth and drive the name deeper into your memory. I used to tell kids that if I knew their name, it was because they did something wrong. Now I want to tell them I know their names because they are at my camp.

Mix it in.
I became known as the guy who wrote campers’ names on their faces. And while the marker wasn't indelible, the effect on my brain was. I had the chance to take a visual picture of the camper in my mind and combine it with the speaking and writing processes all at once. Plus, it was hilarious when campers started running around with marker sweat streaks all over their faces. Find creative ways to use name tags or sign-ups so you can integrate a camper’s name into your brain.

Spell it for me.
This is a fairly simple trick that I find helps me as an avid reader. When a camper says his or her name the first few times, I ask for a spelling. I can picture the letters, sort out any unusual sounds, and then when I invariably have to put that person’s name on a list, it’s nice for the camper to see I had it right. If you have an uncommon name, you know how nice it is when someone actually spells it correctly.

How You Talk
I was lucky enough to spend some time working for a great organization that focused on at-risk youth. Kids who are emotionally sensitive make a great training ground to learn how to speak to someone; everything you do (tone, body language) becomes magnified and equally as important as what you actually say.

Get short.
As adults who often interact with adults, we may rarely consider our height to be a significant issue. Have the respect to get down on the level of the young person you're talking to—take a knee, have a seat, etc. Find a way to be eye-to-eye with the camper.

Open posture.
If you're hiring college men or women, they've all heard about open posture in regards to job interviews. Explain to them that every time they sit down with a kid, that person is interviewing them to see if they are worth that trust. It's a big deal. If you sit cross-legged or cross-armed, the camper may get the message that you are closed off. Actively think about relaxing, whether you are across from a camper or next to one; open space or a table in between, etc. Just remember that the attitude presented is often the attitude reflected.

Tone it down.
There have been a number of occasions when a camper has told me to ”stop yelling” even though I wasn’t actually yelling.  However, in the heat of a difficult situation, everything becomes magnified. It’s important to control your volume. Purposefully lower it to the extreme, just above a whisper. A softer tone can greatly impact how you are received. It also does wonders for changing your own mindset about how stressful the situation feels.

Team up.
There are certain times when it’s absolutely crucial to have another adult involved in a conversation. When there is tension, and what may be said is of critical importance, have another adult present. He or she can sit quietly nearby, or be a part of the conversation as needed. For the benefit of campers and staff members, be sure two sets of ears are hearing what’s going on.

What You Say
Keep it simple.
Kids can be bombarded with instructions on a daily basis. If your interaction has many facets, try to simplify your talking points to straightforward directions. Time yourself if you have to. If you can get the points out in 60 seconds and get the group moving, the members will see you’re working toward what they want. Campers will hear the basics, and listen better or react faster to start a game or activity.

Be clear.
Kids can’t follow through on what they don't know about. Set obvious expectations and boundaries for anything you’re doing. Let them ask questions. Make sure everyone is understood. Confusion can lead to all sorts of issues that are better resolved earlier than later.

Share language.
This may be one of the most crucial ideas when talking to anyone. Each person has a different set of experiences (lens) through which to view the world. If I asked you to imagine a car right now, what color would it be? All of the answers may be slightly different. The same can be true with other words, phrases, and concepts. We have to endeavor to understand our young people and speak a language that is meaningful to them. It doesn’t mean co-opting slang in an attempt to seem ”cool,” but make the effort to integrate words into your lexicon that campers are more likely to understand.

Communication is central to relationship building. You have to understand the recipient of your message, and use language that creates a shared experience. In a tense situation, everything you do can be crucial to helping walk that young person from one place to another. Take more time this summer to equip staff members and give them the tools to be successful communicators, and everyone will be better off!

Matthew Surber is the program director for the West River United Methodist Retreat and Camping Ministries in Churchton, Md. Reach him at (410) 867-0991, or