Children are little spirit-balls of energy. They need your time and your attention. They want you to be fun. This can be exhausting if you’ve never worked with children before. It’s especially exhausting if your main goal for being abroad is to travel or, well, live abroad. And if you’re introverted like me, it can take a toll if you don’t take proper care of yourself.
But have no fear! Here are some quick tips to get you started working with children, whether as an au pair or a teacher.
Give them your full, undivided attention
You never know what story each child you meet carries with them. As a teacher, I’ve worked with thousands of children from as young as age 3, all the way to 18. Each one has a life they go home to, and you don’t know what kind of life that is.
Because of that, it’s imperative that you give them your attention. This means you do not check your phone or your watch in front of them. If they call your name or ask a question, you answer. They are your responsibility for the hours that were allotted to you and this must be seen as a gift. They need to be safe with you, physically, psychologically, emotionally.
Checking your phone or spacing out shows them that there’s another adult in the world that isn’t going to give them the time of day they deserve. That the world wasn’t made for them. That they are small pieces of a bigger pie.
Put your phone on silent. Set your own life aside for the hours you committed to. Give them attention. They deserve it.
Have a handful of activities planned (with extra backups)
Perhaps you’re good at winging it. Or perhaps you’re full of energy and can think cleverly on your feet.
I’m a planner and like to have a long list of things I can go to during my lessons or tutoring sessions so that neither party, myself or the children, get bored. If you’re bored, likely they’re bored.
So I plan. A lot. I have a handful of activities up my sleeve where they can get up and move, activities where we might need the iPad, and a whole bunch of crafts and art projects with materials we can default to if there’s extra time. Here are some activities to get you started.
Have a backup plan, even if you usually wing it. What happens when you wanted to take them outside but it’s raining? Can you adjust your outdoor activities to become indoor activities? How? What would it look like?
Keep a routine
No matter how fun your activities are, children need structure, especially when they’re very small (2 to 6 years). There needs to be some sort of structure to their time with you. Perhaps you start with a round of high-fives. Or perhaps you sing a song. Whatever the activities, do them in a certain order or repeat a few a couple times a week.
If you’re an au pair this might be essential. You can schedule periods for homework, periods for going outside, periods for limited screen time. Starting and ending each period with some sort routine (reviewing some flashcards with them or packing snacks for going out together). Pretty soon, they’ll know what to do. And, hopefully, look forward to it!
Teach them your culture
Especially if you come from a culture that is not often shared in the media, share that with the children you’re working with. It’s important that children learn early on about the richness of different cultures. This especially so with the media telling them what’s what.
You’re a real person in front of them teaching them about a culture drastically different from theirs and one they wouldn’t normally be exposed to. And this is essential in a world that stereotypes conflates, and minimizes these experiences.
Take care of yourself
I’m pretty introverted, and working with hundreds of children all day at the school makes me very tired. But I make sure I eat well, exercise, and take time for my much-needed solitude. It’s a lot of energy to exert, and you need to have the energy to keep up with the demand. So take self-care seriously and don’t skip out on it.
Tap into your inner child
If this is your first time working with children, remember that in any culture, children are children. You were one once, too. Can you remember what that was like? What were your favorite activities? Did you always want to play too? Were you always pulling on an adult’s sleeve to ask a question burning inside you?
If you’ve never worked with children, now’s a good time to remind yourself what it was like to be one. And always use that empathy, whether your childhood was happy or not-so-much, in every interaction you have with a child.
Working with children is rewarding. Probably because of their innocence. Probably because they see magic in the everyday. These are things we lose as adults. When you’re with a child, it’s a second chance at rekindling a little of that magic. Let go, and let them teach you.