Inevitably at some point in the school year, parents reach out because they are concerned that their child isn’t loving school. My first question is always “Why do you think that?” and the answer is often the same: “When I ask them what they did in school today they always answer ‘nothing’”. Oh oh, not that ‘nothing’ word again!
As parents we want to engage our children in conversation that lets us know what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, what they’re doing and whether or not they need support of some kind. As educators we wish that our students would share with their parents the stories of all the awesome things we do in school. On both sides, it is difficult and sometimes even frustrating when we hit the one-word dead ends. Don’t despair, there is hope. We can actually teach our children to engage in conversation and get the information we so desperately want. It’s all about the questions, the timing, and a few other important factors.
Big open-ended questions are a great starting point to getting more than the word ‘nothing’ from our children. Engaging children in conversation can begin with questions like “What was your favourite thing you did at recess today?”, “Tell me something funny that happened at school today”, “What part of your day did you like the best?”, “Who did you sit by at lunch today?”, “Did something surprise you today?”, “What book did you read today?”, “Who were you a helper to today?” or simply, “How was your day? Tell me about it”.
When children respond to open-ended questions, they gain confidence in their ability to communicate, they learn to analyze and evaluate what they have done and what they have learned, they are given an opportunity for reflection and most importantly they (and we) often get to the heart of their emotions. These are all truly important life skills that we are exposing our children to and at the same time often getting the information we want. It’s a win-win situation. Of course, we won’t want to ask all of these questions on the same day. Starting with one or two at a time will help us determine which questions elicit the most meaningful responses and then those can become our go to questions.
When we ask questions is often as important as the questions we ask. We should choose times when our children can best focus and when we ourselves have the time required to give our full attention to the answers given. We want to be prepared for the dialogue that will hopefully come. Dinner time, quiet time before bed or even on the car ride home are often great times for these types of conversations. The more practice the children get with this type of information-gathering, the easier this communication should get and eventually it will become routine.
To help make these conversations positive and powerful we need to be mindful not to interrupt, to ask about feelings around things that are shared and to validate those feelings. We need to let our children know that feelings are okay and we should always thank them for sharing with us. All of these things will fuel their confidence in telling us more. Instead of feeling bombarded by invasive questions, if we do this right, we will be building valuable rapport and trust with them. If they get used to telling us the little things they will surely feel more comfortable telling us the big things later on in life. Really important stuff!
So the next time we want to know how things are going in our children’s lives we just have to remember not to ask a yes or no question unless we follow up with ‘tell me more’. And please, take it from me, there will never be a CGS day when ‘nothing’ is the correct answer to “what did you do in school today?”.