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Why Aren’t They Talking to You?

There you are in car line, waiting for your upper-elementary or middle school child, and you’re once again hoping against hope for a great chat on the way home.  As your beloved climbs into the car, you initiate what you pray will be meaningful conversation.  Maybe today, he’ll answer you.  Maybe.

“Hey, how was school?”


“What did you do today?”


And so ends the conversation; exchanges like this don’t exactly bode well for dinner time discussion either.  There’s nothing to build upon for later when you try to include your spouse and the rest of the family in the news of the day.

“So, Billy’s day was just okay today.  He didn’t do a single thing at school.  Six and a half hours: nothing.  Could someone please pass the potatoes?”

How did these little chatterboxes, who could recite by chapter and verse everything their kindergarten teacher said every day, grow so quiet and so ill-at-ease with simple questions?  More importantly, how do you get them to start talking again?  You have a choice: change the kid or change the questions.  (hint: pick questions)

Your child is questioned throughout the day in class as teachers attempt to discern comprehension among students.  These questions are designed to bring about higher order thinking through mindfully developed stages; teachers rarely accept single-word answers, so they tend to ask open-ended questions.  An open-ended question can be loosely defined as one which requires more than a single-word answer (such as “yes” or “no”) and encourages more thoughtful and involved responses.  These don’t have to be difficult questions; they can be the same questions you’ve always been asking that are rephrased to avoid quick, dismissive responses.

For instance, instead of, “Did you have a good day at school?” you might want to try, “What was the best thing that happened at school today?”  Sometimes these questions can even be phrased as commands, such as, “Describe the best thing that happened at school today.”

At times, it is necessary to ask follow-up questions; these not only demonstrate true interest, but they keep the conversation engaging and alive.  “Tell me about that book you are reading.  What’s the main character like?”  These will get you much farther than, “Is that a good book?”

There is much to be said for asking open-ended questions beyond alleviating the mono-syllabic responses which drive you crazy.  Researchers have found that, especially among young children, this type of questioning can lend itself to increased vocabulary acquisition, enhanced critical thinking skills, and faster language development (Harlen, 1999).  There are several good websites where you can find lists of effective open-ended questions.  I’ve included one of these lists from below.    So, now you have the magic formula for brilliant after-school conversation and all will go well, right?  Not exactly.  It’s important to remember that your child isn’t used to this type of inquiry, and it may take some time to get comfortable with it.  Also, because these questions stimulate higher order thinking, it will take children longer to process and formulate a response.  Be patient with them and with yourself; it is worth it to have something more to hear about than an okay day in which nothing happened.  Have fun and happy chatting!

What’s the biggest difference between last year and this year?

What’s the best thing about your year so far?

Who do you sit with at lunch/play with at recess?

What is your favorite thing to do at recess?

What are two things you learned this week that you didn’t know last week?

How will you use what you learned in (class) as you grow up?

How can you make a difference to one person in your class tomorrow?

Why do you suppose we need to learn about (insert whatever they just told you they learned)?

What is the funniest thing someone said today?

Tell me two things you remember from each class today?

Was there anything you wish you had at school today that you didn’t have?

Why do you wish you had it? (follow-up to question above)

What’s the best thing about today’s schedule?

What day is your favorite at school and why?

Lou Maute

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