Recently I was asked to teach a breakout session titled “Understanding and Teaching Gen Z.” Gen Z represents college kids (born after 1995) to older preschoolers (born before 2015ish). I use “ish” because there seems to be a debate regarding the exact years.
That’s a new topic for me, so I began to do the research on this youngest identified generation with hopes of educating myself and finding ways to share with others how to be successful with this new generation. I searched for, ordered, and read several books by authors I trust. Then I searched the internet and read many, many articles and blogs (some I trust and some I’m not so sure about). What I found was a lot of information about trends, practices, and characteristics of the older side of Gen Z but not so much on the younger kids; the ones we teach. The implications were there but I was looking for some practical tips.
Tim Elmore has always caught my attention. He not only shares statistics about the youngest generations, he genuinely loves and desires to help them be successful. His books and lectures offer hope and encouragement for those of us who lead and teach. Tim will soon release a new book (yet to be titled) on Gen Z but his last book, “Marching off the Map: Inspire Students to Navigate a Brand New World” was very helpful as I learned and prepared.
In chapter 3, “Who are Today’s New Natives?” Dr. Elmore shares tips for connecting with and leading Gen Z. I want to share six of his tips and expand on the implications for teaching in the older preschool and elementary classroom. The seventh tip wasn’t listed in this chapter but certainly is implied (and stated) throughout the book.
- Keep it Short. Today’s kids have short attention spans. That doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t able to concentrate because they can. However, within seconds kids decide if what you’ve got to say is worth their attention. If you miss that window you’ll have to work hard to regain their trust. Engage quickly and deliberately. Be ready the moment a child enters the room. This requires preparation and intentionality. Be on time (early). Be prepared. Be engaging.
- Make it Visual. We know that kids are visual learners. They learn best when there are images that support the content you’re teaching. Use pictures, maps, and other visuals (even screens) to engage and maintain their interest.
- Feed their Curiosity. We also know that kids are naturally curious so as teachers, we should use that to our advantage. Whet their appetite then lead them to discover more as your session progresses.
- Give them Ownership. I’ve talked about this for years when I help teachers understand guiding behavior. It’s been my experience that when kids choose what they’re going to do, they tend to work harder to see that succeed. What choices do the kids in your class get to make or is the entire session prescribed to them? And then, once choices are made, allow them to have ownership. It can be our tendency to “do it for them” but we’d be better off to “help them do it.”
- Make it Interactive. This generation is more connected than any other generation in history, yet statistics tell us that loneliness is at epidemic proportions. The kids I know desperately need more face-to-face socialization but in our classrooms, we often tell them to sit down, listen, and don’t talk or interrupt. Allow groups to work together. Allow time for discussion and interaction. If you want retention, foster interaction.
- Gamify your Content. It’s no secret that kids today love gaming. Boys and girls alike are spending hours each day playing on their favorite gaming stations and online phone/tablet game apps. So, if you can’t beat ‘em (and we can’t) then join ‘em (at least at some level). I’m not talking about filling our classrooms with gaming stations and iPads. I’m talking about positioning kids in their natural habitat and using the familiar concepts of points, competition (in moderation), badges, and levels to engage them in learning. I think it would be fun to talk to your favorite kid and ask him/her about her favorite games and then see if application could be made to your Bible teaching sessions.
- Build Relationships. Nothing can (nor should) replace healthy, loving relationships with kids and their teachers. It’s an old adage but it’s still true today and maybe even more so with this generation than any before: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Everything we do should be umbrellaed by love; a genuine love for them and our desire for them to know the genuine love of Jesus who gave himself so that they might have a right relationship with the Father and spend an eternity with Him in heaven. There is no greater love. There is no greater relationship. Model that for your students.
So, there you go. The first of what I’m sure will be many conversations in this blog on this subject. As we learn more, we’ll share more. I’d love to know your thoughts, your experiences, and your discoveries on teaching the youngest members of Gen Z.
Bill Emeott serves as Lead Ministry Specialist for Lifeway Kids. He is a graduate of Mercer University and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Bill has served in Kids Ministry for almost 30 years and currently teaches 3rd Grade Bible study at his home church in Nashville, TN.