Parents are frequently testing me with the question of how can they better learn what is happening in school, when the usual response to how’s school is “fine” or “nothing happened” to simply end the conversation. So, let me try to take on that assignment and offer some advice.
How you ask matters
How you ask about school does make a difference. If your child thinks your questions are coming from a detective interrogating a suspect to see what really happened at school, you will never solve that mystery.
If you ask questions that have a positive tone and are open ended, then you’re going to learn a lot more, not just about school, but about your child as well.
Questions to avoid
Please avoid asking questions that require a yes or no and/or a one-word answer, like “fine” or “ok”. These will rarely give you an inkling as to what is happening at school.
Instead, ask open-ended questions such as “I hear your class size is bigger than last year—what’s that like for you?” or “what’s the biggest difference between your classes last year and this year?” Open-ended questions like these will usually open a conversation that won’t end abruptly.
Asking your child about the best things or most interesting things that happened at school is better than, “Did you have fun at school?” This latter question is more close-ended and will get you a one-word answer. Asking “Who do you enjoy talking with most?” is better than, “Are the kids in class nice?”
Asking about social time
Another good angle is not just to ask about class but about social times like recess and lunch. Asking, “What’s the best game being played at recess?” is better than “Did you play with anyone at recess?” Try to ask, “What’s the funniest thing that was said at lunch?” It will get you further than, “How was lunch?”
Positive encouragement matters
Finally, don’t forget to offer praise or positive encouragement for what sounds like something your child is proud of or did well at. This helps to strengthen your child’s self-esteem.
Hopefully, tips like these will speak to you and in turn your child when you want to have a good conversation about what happened today in school.
Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.