Whether it's starting school for the first time, joining T-ball or attending a parent-child music class together, it can be challenging for young children to learn how to interact in a group setting. That can be stressful (even for mamas!), but it's actually part of the value of enrolling your child in a class. They will learn not only about soccer or gymnastics, but about how to wait for a turn, how to make friends and how to control their impulses.
While we know these social interactions and even stumbles are important, we still want our children to have the best experience possible. No one wants their child to be the one always getting in trouble or fighting with other kids.
Here are a few methods to help your child succeed in group settings:
1. Communicate expectations
If it's your child's first foray into a group setting, tell them the expectations ahead of time. For a sports team, this might mean listening to the coach and keeping hands off the other kids. For a music lesson or story time, it might mean sitting down during the class.
2. Give one-word reminders
If your child is struggling with a certain issue, like remembering to raise their hand to talk, think of a one-word reminder or gesture. Sometimes simply making eye contact and raising your own hand can be powerful. Use the reminder word as your child goes into class, or even send a little note in their pocket with the word and a little doodle.
Practice whatever challenge your child is working on at home. If they're struggling with coming when the teacher calls, take it to the backyard and practice running around, and then calling your child's name. Ask them to stop and look at you when you do this, and then give a silly instruction. Practicing following the rules can be a fun way to connect to your child.
4. Run around first.
If your child is going to school or a different class where they will be expected to sit for a while, help them release energy beforehand. Encourage them to run around the backyard or a nearby park for 20 minutes before you go. Exerting this abundant energy can help a child be successful when it's time so sit still.
5. Ask them to help you
This is one of my favorite tips I learned as a teacher and I use it with my own child regularly. If your child is struggling to follow a rule, ask them to help you remember. For example, if my son is struggling to walk (not run!) in music class, I say "I need your help. Will you please help me remember to walk today? If you see me running in music class say, 'Stop mama!"
It's fun and whimsical and makes your child feel like you're in this together.
6. Leave if necessary
Obviously you can't pull your child out of school, but if you're at an extracurricular class together and things are rapidly deteriorating, don't be afraid to call it a day. This isn't to punish your child, but to protect them.
If they're having an off day and simply can't handle a group setting at the moment, taking them home will protect them from feeling bad about themselves, from feeling the judging eyes of others on them, and from feeling your own disappointment in their behavior. Children can sense these things.
7. Talk to the coach or teacher
It can be hard to know if your child's behavior is within the range of normal. If you're unsure, talk to your child's coach or teacher. Ask if your child's behavior is normal, and if it's acceptable or causing problems for the class.
8. Check in
After they've attended a few times, check in with your child on how they think a group class is going. Do they like it? Is any part of it hard? Do they need help with anything? What's their favorite part? Encourage your child to judge their own behavior and struggles.
9. Talk about issues when you're both calm
Talk to your child about any behavioral issues you're seeing, but wait until you are calm. If you're feeling really angry or frustrated that your child was terrorizing art class today, it's not a good time for a productive discussion. When you're both calm, talk to your child about what you're seeing and ask for their input in coming up with a solution.
10. Notice good behavior
The last thing we want is to give our children the impression that they aren't good or that they're a problem child. Children internalize these impressions and tend to live up to the expectations. Make sure to notice your child's good behavior in a group setting, especially if they're struggling. Saying phrases like, "I like how you raised your hand to talk today" or "I noticed you being so respectful to your coach today" can go a long way towards boosting your child's confidence.
Let your child know that you recognize being in a group setting can be a challenge. Say something like, "Remembering to raise your hand can be so hard" or "I know it's so frustrating when you really want a turn and you have to wait". You can even share an anecdote about a rule you've had trouble following to show your child you understand and that their struggles are normal.
12. Observe the other kids
We're naturally hyper focused on our own kids, which can make it seem like they're the only ones struggling to behave in a group. Next time you're with your child in a group setting, take a few minutes to watch the other children. Odds are, yours is not the only one struggling. Seeing this can help you keep perspective and understand reasonable expectations for a child of a given age.
It takes time for most children to learn how to be in a group. This is where they learn how to be respectful toward an authority figure, how to recognize and adhere to social rules and how to make friends. They have to do the hard work of figuring out these life lessons themselves, but using these strategies can help set them up for the best experience possible.