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When Kids Just Don’t Want to Participate

Posted by on in What If?
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preschool behavior

You plan your activities and lessons to be as exciting, fun, and meaningful as possible. And when most of the children engage in them, you feel a sense of pride and success! But what about those kids who simply don’t want to participate? Have you failed, or is there something going on with the kids themselves? Should you force them to participate? Allow them to sit on the sidelines?

Those are among the questions I asked of Heather Shumaker, author of It’s OK to Go Up the Slide, which includes an entire chapter on this topic, and early childhood expert Amanda Morgan in an episode of Studentcentricity.

Following taping, Heather had this to add:

If a child doesn't want to participate in what the group is doing, don't panic. All behavior has meaning. Respect the child, but respect the group, too. That means the child has the right not to join in, as long as her actions don't disrupt the group's activity. Protect the rights of both. Young children do a lot of learning through observation, or they may be dealing with fears or other social learning.

And Amanda contributed:

Just as a child may engage in onlooker play to observe and figure out the rules of engagement before entering a social play situation, some children need to observe classroom systems and activities first before they feel comfortable engaging.

For children who show a pattern of sitting out, make an effort to invite them before your group activity starts. Give them a heads-up about the transition and what you will be doing. This preparation alone may make a big difference for them. If they say they don't want to join in, give them appropriate choices they can make when that time comes so that you can transition to your group activity smoothly without having to stop and negotiate midstream.

Remember that stepping out of an uncomfortable situation can be a positive coping strategy, particularly for children with anxiety or sensory issues. Teaching them that there is an appropriate way to excuse themselves or an appropriate place for them to retreat to can be extremely valuable in helping them to cope without creating a disruption.

If you find that sitting out may be an attention-getting device, try to give more attention and create more connection outside of the group activity (during other parts of the day or during the transition), and be inviting but not overly reactive once the child chooses not to participate with the group.  

It’s all too easy to take it personally when a child refuses to participate in one of your fabulous activities. Or to worry that the child isn’t learning. But what Heather and Amanda said about children learning through observation is so true! It’s amazing how much they absorb through their eyes.

Remember, too, that sometimes it’s simply a developmental issue. I once knew a child who never participated for the entire year that he was 4. But when he came back the following year, at age 5, he was leader of the pack! So, as was mentioned in the interview, it’s important to respect their pace of learning – and to stick to what you know is true of children should parents or administrators question your judgment!

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Rae Pica has been an education consultant specializing in the development and education of the whole child, children's physical activity, and active learning since 1980. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music and, most recently, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Rae has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, Gymboree, Nike, and state health departments throughout the country. She is a member of the executive committee of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences and is co-founder of BAM Radio Network, where she hosts Studentcentricity, interviewing experts in education, child development, play research, the neurosciences, and more on teaching with students at the center.

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Guest Thursday, 18 July 2019