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Some kids love talking about school. But some don’t — especially when something is upsetting them, like bullying or struggling with a specific subject. If your child is a bit quiet about how things are going in school, there are ways to encourage them to open up more. 

In this episode, host Julian Saavedra explains: 

  • Ways to ask kids open-ended questions

  • How to be vulnerable with kids

  • And why knowing when to stop asking questions can make all the difference

Related resources

Episode transcript

Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap." Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences often face a double stigma. And there's a lot that families can do to address the opportunity gap in our communities. This podcast explains key issues and offers tips to help you advocate for your child. My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host. Welcome to Season 3. 

On today's show, we're talking about ways to get your child to open up and talk about school. I'm a proud dad of two. I love my kids, and I love talking to them, whether it be at dinnertime, bedtime. Scratch that, any time of the day. It's really important to my wife and I, and I really like to know how are they feeling, what's going on in their head, how their day was just, what's going on with their life in general. 

A lot of times kids deal with so many different things on a daily basis, and especially at school, and so we want to know what's going on with it. When it comes to school, some kids love talking about it, but sometimes they don't want to say anything. It is straight crickets, especially if something is upsetting them, if they're dealing with bullying, if they're struggling in a specific subject matter. 

Sometimes it just goes quiet. The way that you can ask kids questions can really be the ultimate game changer. It can encourage them to talk more. And I want to share some tips that I found really helpful in the Saavedra household. 

First tip: Ask open-ended questions. Ask open-ended questions. This is like a teacher tip, a life tip, a conversation tip, and especially a parenting tip. If you ask a question that can be answered with one word — those yes or no questions — that's what you're going to get, a one-word answer. 

I know a lot of parents, the first question they say is, "Did you have a good day?" Listeners, I'm sure you've heard yourself say that to a child before. And I'm asking to tell you, don't do that. Don't qualify it. Because if you say, "Did you have a good day?" Then the child's going to feel like they need to respond by saying, "Yes, day was good." What if it wasn't good? Then what are they going to do? They're going to have to make something up. 

And so, keeping an open-ended and saying, "How is your day?," or "Tell me about your day." Or "Tell me a story about your day," or "Share some words that explain how your day was." And it leaves it open so that they can fill in the blanks with whatever they'd like. It doesn't qualify it, and it guarantees you're not getting a one-word answer. So, tip number one: Ask open-ended questions. 

Tip number two: Start with an observation. Kids often have such a hard time answering questions that kind of just seem to come out of the blue. A lot of times they'll hear all these different adults coming at them with questions, and they might think, "Where did this come from?" If you make an observation, it will give the child something to relate to. 

For example, you might mention something like, "Hey, I noticed that you have more kids in your class this year. What's that like for you?" Or "Wow, your bookbag is pretty heavy today. You have some extra stuff you got to do tonight?" Or "I noticed that a lot of the kids were really excited in the bus line. Tell me about that." There's so many different things that you can use to reference so that it really helps your child focus. And especially for our children with ADHD or learning and thinking differences, making sure that you give a very specific example — almost like a sentence starter — it helps them focus their energy and focus what they want to say into a very specific story. So, tip number two: Start with an observation. 

Tip number three: Be vulnerable too. That means you, too. When somebody tells you about themselves, it's natural to want to do that in return. Share something with your child and see what you get back. For example, if you're noticing that your child is having a lot of trouble with math and you can relate to that, share that. 

My son Abraham is in fourth grade right now, and I don't know about y'all, but fourth-grade math is a whole thing that is way different than it was when your host was in fourth grade. And I know a lot of parents out there are trying to learn math as we go, just like I am. And I'm an educator, and I still sometimes look at the homework or the assignments he's getting and I don't know what's going on. I have to ask him to explain it to me. 

And so, sometimes I'll sit with him and explain "Listen, Dad really struggles with understanding math. I barely made it through Algebra 1 in high school. And even when I went to college, I struggled to get through it. I had to do tutoring, I had to find friends to help me. It's something that I still get really worried about. And I have to evaluate teachers, so I go into math classes, and sometimes I even struggle to know what's going on. So, I have to teach myself and practice a whole bunch to figure it out. So, Abraham, can you help Dad with your math? Because I want to make sure that I'm helping you out. You can help me out. 

And that little trick of letting your child teach you what's happening, or their child seeing that you don't know everything. It can make all the difference. I'm going to tell you right now, Abraham absolutely loves when he gets the chance to tell Dad "This is how you do long division." "No, Dad, this is the remainder," and we work at it together. So, a lot of times when you have a personal story or a personal struggle with something that's similar to what your child is dealing with — especially when it comes to content — then that's a great way to be vulnerable. 

Sometimes you can also share experiences about your interactions with other kids. I know that a lot of kids, especially as they get older, there's some issues that happen between bullying or tough relationships with other kids in school. That's a great chance for you to be vulnerable too and share and be real. "Maybe I didn't have the greatest experience when I was in seventh grade either. Let me tell you what it was like for me."

Now, I will say, this is not the chance for you to start lecturing your child. This is not the chance for you to say, "When I was your age, I did blah blah blah" because then it just becomes Charlie Brown "Wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah." Keep it short. Keep it sweet. Keep it focused, but allow your child to do the talking. The goal is for them to open up. It's not a therapy session for you. It's a chance for your child to open up about themselves. So, tip number three: Be vulnerable too. 

Tip number four: Avoid negative questions. Avoid negative questions. Now, what does that mean? Asking in a positive way lets your child express concerns. So, for example, you may mention "I heard that you sat with new people at lunch today. What did you talk about?" Not "Why did your seat get moved at lunch?" Or all the things that start with questions about why something isn't happening. Focus on what is happening. Asking questions that have a positive frame allows your child to fill in the blanks. 

Just like I was saying earlier, really thinking about the question you're asking to allow for them to fill in the blanks is the goal. Thinking about sentence starters — which we're going to get to in a moment — that can really help your child open up is the goal for this. 

Tip number five: And this might be the most important tip, and probably the hardest one for those of us that are parents, and especially those of us that are educators and love to hear ourselves talk, especially ones that are podcast hosts. Know when to call it quits. Tip number five: Know when to call it quits. It's really important to know when to stop asking questions and leave it for another time. That is incredibly important. That is key. If your kids don't want to talk about something right away, that's OK. They can always come back to you. Talk when they're ready. Doesn't have to be on your time. 

I'm sure all of us experienced times where we just don't feel like saying anything. We just want a break. We just went through an eight-hour day. We sat through classrooms. We had a whole bunch of stuff going on. We get in the car, we get off the bus, and maybe we just went five minutes to get our mind right. All we're thinking about is a snack, seeing our pets, and taking a breather. At least that's what my kids want to do. So, I try to keep it really short. 

I'm fortunate where I rush out of my own school, I go and pick my kids up. They hop in the back of the car. I have some music on in the background, usually like a different song every day. I ask them "Tell me about your day. Tell me something that was fun. Tell me something that is in concern." And that's it. It's three questions and we keep it moving. And if they don't feel like talking, they just say, "Dad, can we cut it for right now?" "Cool. No worries. Just listen to some music instead."

And sure enough — maybe an hour later when we're doing homework or doing our chores or whatever — they might come over and start telling me some stuff, or they might go and whisper it to Mom because she is usually the one that they go to for everything. So, tip number five, the most important tip, know when to call it quits. 

All right, let's move on to some conversation starters. You know, for all of those that are trying to figure out like, what are some specific things that we can use? Now that I've given some tips on what to do and what not to do, I want to share some of these conversation starters or other examples of how to say things differently to get your child to open up. I have three really good ones. 

First, instead of asking, "Was school fun today?" Try, "What was the best thing you did today?" That's a great one, especially for those of us that have children with learning and thinking differences. This is a great way to focus their conversation on a specific topic. 

Here's a second conversation starter. Instead of asking, "Were the kids in your class friendly?" Try, "Who did you enjoy talking to the most? Who did you enjoy talking to the most?" And again, this gives a very specific person, and that's great information to get. Now you know, if the same child and the same child's name keeps coming up, well, maybe that's somebody that you need to set up a playdate for. Or maybe you need to dig deeper to figure out how can we connect my child with this kid? 

Conversation starter number three. Instead of asking, "Was your teacher nice?" Try this one. "What was the most interesting thing your teacher said today? So, let's run those back just so that we're really, really clear on these three great conversation starters. First one, "What was the best thing you did today?" Second, "Who did you like talking to the most?" Third, "What was the most interesting thing your teacher said today?" 

If you use all three of those, I guarantee your children are going to be speaking a lot more. Phrasing questions like this invites your kids to talk. And again, like we said earlier, sometimes kids — like adults, like me, like you, like everybody listening — we just don't feel like talking. Guess what? That's OK. It's all right. So, don't expect every single question to result in this long, detailed answer. 

The goal is really to have as many small conversations over time with your child. You're setting the foundation for how you all are going to interact forever. That's a really heavy lift. But remember, you have a lifetime and so you don't want to rush it. Take your time and focus on what's important for them. Try some of the conversation starters. Try some of the tips. See what happens. 

So before we go, I have some really wonderful resources from Understood to help share with you. First, Understood's article "How to get your child to talk about school." Also, get tips on "How to respond when your child is frustrated about school." Until next time listeners, I will talk to you soon. 

"The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Tara Drinks, edited by Cin Pim. Ilana Millner is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show for the Understood Podcast Network. Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

Host

  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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