Three professionals well-versed in working with children or training workers give their tips to family entertainment venues.
If you’ve visited a family-focused business, such as a theme park or entertainment center, you know they are often stocked with young employees who have little-to-no experience working with children. Oftentimes, visiting these businesses can be frustrating. Of course, we can’t blame a teenager working at their first job. However, we can acknowledge that businesses need to do a better job in training their employees in working with children. After all, working with children is not for everyone.
I don’t blame employees who are frustrated working in one of these family entertainment venues. As a mother, I am often frustrated! However, I’m often looking for ways to effectively communicate with my children. I believe family-focused businesses should do the same when training their employees. It would make the job and the customer experience infinitely better.
I spoke to several people well-versed in working with children from all backgrounds on how businesses can better train their employees. Here’s what they said.
Meredith Tekin — who is the president of International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, an organization that trains and certifies individuals to work with children with autism, mental health and cognitive disorders —said there are a number of items businesses can add to their checklist with training employees. First, business leaders should consider working with a “credible partner or supplier, such as a certifying body that has been providing programs for a long time.”
“Ensure the content is from multiple clinical and expert perspectives, including the perspectives of individuals who have lived experience (are autistic themselves or have disabilities, etc),” Tekin said. “ Also, repeat and reinforce the training — make sure staff and managers talk through any process implications, and provide written materials to reference.”
When communicating with children, employees should be versatile in how they communicate.
“Speaking in a friendly but direct and clear manner can help avoid confusion – many individuals may not understand certain jargon, sarcasm, or may take things literally,” Tekin said. “Sometimes kneeling or getting on the child’s level can be helpful, but not every individual is comfortable with eye contact or speaking to others in close proximity. Also, keep in mind that some individuals who are autistic or have other differences may be nonverbal, but that doesn’t mean they can’t communicate. The best policy is, when in doubt, ask!”
Above all, Tekin said the most success comes from hiring and screening employees properly.
Is there a checklist these businesses should have when hiring new employees? For example, experience working with children at prior jobs, etc.
“Training can help build empathy and understanding different perspectives, especially for visitors with disabilities in case the staff member does not have personal experience,” Tekin said. “Providing specific, up-to-date and relevant training can bridge knowledge gaps that enables and empowers staff to do what they do best, which is to help visitors have a fun and safe time.”
Whitney Raser, director of education for the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum, recommends following the “Three Cs” when working with children.
“Keep your expectations clear, concise, and consistent,” Raser said. “The shorter your ‘rules’ the stickier they are for a child and often the more easily understood. Most of our expectations do not exceed three-to-four-word statements. For example, ‘Use kind words’ and ‘Stay with your grownup.’ Additionally, these phrases are the same whether they are used by a visitor services associate on the floor or a member of the leadership team. Consistency is key.”
Raser also recommended using visual supports to communicate with children.
“Children may have linguistic differences or neurological exceptionalities from a venue’s employees — Having signs, as well as kinesthetic motions associated with each expectation, helps children to latch on to what is required of them in a space,” Raser said.
Finally, Raser said it’s important for all employees to “approach work with a sense of humility, empathy, and lifelong learning.”
“Organizations should reach out to local nonprofits that work with children from neurodivergent or linguistic backgrounds,” Raser said. “Often these nonprofit groups are eager to share best practices with other community partners. These groups can offer culturally relevant and/or research-based approaches to best support children. It is important to engage in this work and these partnerships frequently as new ideas and learnings can support the ongoing work of making a space inclusive.”
Janelle Owens — the human resources director at Test Prep Insight, an EdTech company, who also previously worked in human resources for Target and Wells Fargo — said her best tip for businesses is to role-play with employees.
“Role playing during employees’ orientation and training can have a massive impact on their behavior once they begin work on their own,” Owens said. “Role playing offers a safe, controlled environment in which you can subtly expose employees’ preconceived notions and biases. Role-playing can play a pivotal role in preparing employees for anything that might come from interacting with such a wide swath of humanity as family venues might offer.”
Owens also said business leaders should remember that “HR training should not be a one-size-fits-all approach. It needs to be flexible and dynamic.”
“For younger team members who may be working their first real job, I would double down on training via role-playing,” Owens said. “With veteran employees, you can leverage their prior experiences and general maturity to talk through training matters. You can solicit their input and explore how they handled certain matters in the past. With green employees though, you need to lead and train by example, which role playing is perfect for. In a sense, it is a form of ‘learning by doing.’ Plus, using role play to train younger workers has the added benefit of being more engaging. It is a more active and participatory form of training that holds young workers’ attention, especially teens.”
As a parent, what are your tips for businesses that work with children? Leave your ideas in the comments section below.
San Diego Moms is published every Saturday. Have a story idea? Email [email protected] and follow her on Instagram at @hoawritessd.