“You know better!!” Direct Teaching with Kids.

21 Apr

A few weeks ago I posted The Triad, which introduced the idea of three ways to teach kids in order to make the learning stick. This post expands on the first kind of teaching: Direct Teaching. I’ll start out with a story.

I was at a family gathering a while back with a bunch of my cousins and their kids. Everybody was trying to keep their kids in line and make sure they weren’t taking more food than they should, getting in other kids’ space, hurting anyone, or doing anything else that might be impolite. I heard parents say two things over and over again:

  1. “No, that’s okay, he can learn.”
  2. “She knows better.”

Here’s an example. I’m standing with another parent. My son snatches the last treat from a table right in front of another child and takes off with no intention of sharing any of it. The other child starts to pout and cry. I apologize for my son and start to look around for another treat. The other kid’s parent, in typical Minnesota nice fashion, says, “Oh, don’t bother. It’s okay. He [meaning her son] can learn.” To which I might reply, “Yeah, but he [meaning my son] knows better.”

After watching this scene play out a few times, my brother-in-law, who frequently calls the bluff, leaned over to me and said, “What do they mean by ‘he can learn?’ He can learn what?”

It’s a good question. Often we expect kids to simply “pick up” learning without giving them a lot of assistance. We also sometimes assume that they already know information, which causes us to sometimes say, “They know better than that.”

Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly times when all of us (kids and parents) know better and still do something that we shouldn’t. By the time we become adults, we’ve usually learned how to keep it a secret. Kids aren’t as good at hiding as we are, so they get caught more often. There are also times, however, when, if we really stopped to think about it, we expect kids to know social rules and have social skills that we have never taught them and that we might not even live up to ourselves.

This is where direct teaching comes in. Direct Teaching is best done outside of the moment. It’s not a good idea to try to teach a kid about sharing at the moment when they are running across the room with the treat in their hand. Kids brains aren’t ready to learn when they are trying to get away and hoping they don’t get caught. That’s when we take a deep breath and say, “I’ll have to remember to talk about sharing with him tomorrow.”

When we do take the time to talk about sharing, either at a family meeting or during a prearranged one-on-one moment, we can use the ESP method. ESP = Explain, Show, Practice. We don’t want to make this too long. Short and sweet is best.

“Braden, guess what. I’ve got a really important skill to teach you. It only takes a second. Come on over here. I’ll make it a story.” (Kids of all ages appreciate stories. For older kids, we make them personal stories about at time in our lives when…).


“Can you tell me what sharing is?”

“Yes, it’s when you give something to somebody else.”

“Right, If we have something, we give some of it to somebody, or we let somebody use something that’s ours.”


Here’s where we can tell the story of sharing. Another way to show that works great is acting it out with a mini skit. It might seem cheesy at first, but kids of all ages actually really get into skits. For older kids, sometimes just a monologue. Making it funny always helps.


For practice, we have the kids do it. Again, a skit works well, but we can also let them think of or share a situation where they might use the skill.

Now, this might seem like it’s only geared for younger kids, but nothing could be further from the truth. We use the same steps with older kids, but we treat it in an age appropriate way. Think of talking to a teen about how to get up in the morning for work, keep their schedule, or doing some other job around the house. Better yet, think about resisting peer pressure, saying NO, or getting out of a situation that has gone bad. Explain, Show, Practice is very important, because in the middle of a critical moment, youth do much better if they’ve actually practiced the words and actions they will need to use.

When direct teaching is combined with integrated and situational teaching, parents, kids, and families really experience powerful changes.

Of course, making it real for you might is what my work is all about. For more applications or ideas about applying this stuff to YOUR kids, get in touch with me. 651-274-0031


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