Reading the Room

As museum educators, many of you will be very familiar with the idea of ‘reading your audience’ during a program. As you speak or demonstrate, you look around your group and look for the signs that you are doing well – that you are connecting with them, holding their interest, and maintaining their understanding of your content. Based on what you see, you adjust what you are doing. To begin you look for the obvious signs of engagement, but as you become more experienced, or as you get to know your participants more, you notice more subtle signs too.

What does engagement look like?

  • participants raising their hands, asking and answering questions or adding to the conversation
  • participants laughing at your jokes, and nodding their agreement or appreciation of what you say
  • participants taking action in hands-on activities, to follow instructions or explore creatively in their own way
  • participants pointing things out to each other, or exchanging their thoughts about the object being discussed quietly together (this is different from pairs who chat quietly to each other about unrelated topics – that is a sign of disengagement)

These are great indicators of engagement in its most active form. But, there are other signs that participants are connecting with you, each other and the objects and space where you are gathered. As you look around your group pay attention to:

  • Eye contact – is the participant looking at you or the object? Are they looking at other participants or their friend or family member? Or are they looking around the room or off in the distance
  • Facial expression – is the participant smiling or frowning? Do you see signs of interest, confusion, or distress?
  • Body language – does the participant look comfortable or alert? Are they facing their body towards the conversation or activity? Or do they look uncomfortable, or show signs of distress? Does the person lean forward when looking at objects (a sign of interest that we see in visitors of all ages)? Do they lean in to be closer to their friend or loved one, or other participants (this shows heightened social connection)?
  • Actions – are they participating physically? Do they raise their hands, nod their head, give ‘thumbs up’? Do they lean in to look more closely or to connect with their friend or family member? Do they participate in the activity? Or do they fidget or walk away?
  • Mood – does the person seem happy or content? Or do they seem anxious, distressed or unhappy? Is this different than their usual mood? Remember that some participants, particularly those in the later stages of dementia, may show emotions that are less expected, and may be unrelated to the program.
  • Communications – does the participant offer comments or questions about the object or to participate in the conversation? Do they make non-verbal signs of communications? Or do they ask unrelated questions, or complain?

It is important to note that seeing these positive indications of engagement is a great sign that you are connecting. But even in the absence of these observations, the participant may still be engaged. As a person with dementia begins to experience changes in their abilities, their expressions and communication may change too. The timing of these changes differs between individuals, but generally they increase as their dementia progresses. For example:

  • In later stages of dementia, a person’s expression of emotions may be more flat. They may laugh less, and smile less often. This doesn’t always mean they are not enjoying their experience.
  • Some participants may have a harder time initiating participation – raising their hands or beginning to work on an activity. This doesn’t mean they don’t want to participate, they may just need some support to get started.
  • As abilities related to communication change, participants may offer comments that are less related to the conversation, or their words may become difficult to understand. When they share things, use strategies to help with understanding and expression, or simply appreciate and validate their participation
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AGH-Artful Moments

Take a moment to think how you know that you are connecting with your group.

What signs do you look for? What things tell you that you are not connecting?