The Power of Open-Ended Questions

In my column, What’s Scary About School, I wrote about various situations to be aware of when dealing with your child’s first days of school. A perceptive reader, Aleta Ledendecker, wrote:

”I so enjoy your weekly newsletters, but there was one line in this week’s that concerned me. At the end, you mentioned asking if the child is afraid of going to school. I have found that once adults introduce that idea, it tends to grow. And for those parents who are feeling anxious themselves, this approach just opens the door for them to feed those anxieties to their children.

It would be so much better to advise parents to involve their child by asking more open-ended questions like your first example. Then, if the child expresses some fears, the parent can explore those along with ways to help alleviate them.”

Aleta’s point is well taken. As adults we are the most significant part of a child’s environment. Whether we are aware of it or not, our words, concerns and emotions are reflected into our children’s world and absorbed at an unconscious level by the children.

We need to choose our words carefully and frame our questions even more so.

Inadvertently we can plant ideas with our questions, and redirect or distort our children’s attention and perception.

For example, consider these questions: ”How are you feeling? Are you sick? Do you have a stomachache?” Which question is going to get correct feedback?

The open-ended question that requires more than a ”yes” or ”no” answer is more effective in getting accurate information.

Research shows that when asked a ”closed-response” question, respondees will give a ”yes” answer over 75 percent of the time. Nobody likes to say, ”no.”

People avoid saying ”no” if at all possible. We give ”no” answers to avoid self-incrimination or disappointing superiors. We can’t depend on closed-response questions for insightful information. It seems to be in our best interests, parent and child, to learn how to ask effective open-ended questions.

Here are some examples of how to change a closed-response question to an open-ended question.

Closed: Did you hit your brother?

Open: Why is your brother crying? Tell me what happened.

Closed: Did you make this mess?

Open: What can you tell me about this spilled paint?

Closed: Did you take a bath?

Open: When were you planning on taking a bath?

Closed: Do you like going to school?

Open: What do you think about school? Tell me about school.

Open-ended questions can help give you information to uncover unobvious concerns you might have. Continue the conversation with probing questions using who, what, when, where, how and why.

When you need more than a ”yes” or ”no” answer, use open-ended questions to find out what your child is thinking, feeling or experiencing.

Thanks, Aleta.

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