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Use Positive Questioning To Prevent Your Chats With Early Learners From Becoming Interrogations

In conversation, our role isn’t to interrogate young children but to provide opportunities for them to demonstrate their understanding in their own time, says Kathy Brodie...

  • Use Positive Questioning To Prevent Your Chats With Early Learners From Becoming Interrogations

Positive questioning and active listening are two sides of the same coin.

The heart of active listening is really listening to children – being there for them in the moment and respecting their voice. Positive questioning is a technique for encouraging children to extend those conversations and supporting their thinking processes. Often conversations falter because an adult has started to ‘interrogate’ a child, rather than using questions that encourage further discussion.

It is therefore vital that practitioners are conscious of their questioning techniques, how good techniques can help children’s learning and development, and that they extend conversations and encourage problem-solving. When talking to children of any age, we must respect their opportunity to talk. There will, of course, be occasions where simply observing and not interrupting or questioning at all is the most appropriate course of action.

1.  Use silence
Adults often feel embarrassed or intimidated by a silence in a conversation, but children need up to 10 seconds to process question or comments; to think about what has been said to them, formulate a response and finally physically reply.

Allow children this thinking time, even if it feels uncomfortable! It can become confusing and frustrating for them if you jump in with another question before they have had time to prepare a response, and you risk them not trying to have a conversation another time.

2. Open-ended questions
With children, use ‘How’, ‘What’, ‘When’ and ‘Where’ questions, rather than closed questions, which just require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Open-ended questions mean children really have to think about the answers. The type of answer will demonstrate to you children’s level of understanding and also their world view. It also puts the children back in control of the conversation.

Be cautious about using ‘Why’, though – it can feel judgemental, even if you didn’t mean it to, and may make children defensive in their answers.

3. Recapping & repeating
This is simply repeating the ideas back to your child. This helps to consolidate ideas and ensures that you have understood their train of thought successfully. It also gives children some thinking time, ready to continue the conversation. If you have misunderstood, this gives your child an easy opportunity to repeat their ideas. You can finish the recap by simply asking, “Is that what you meant?”

4. Invite elaboration
Ask children to expand on their ideas and tell you more about what they mean. Your active listening skills will be especially important here, as children explain their thinking. You can extend this type of conversation by reminding children of earlier conversations you may have had or other experiences that may be relevant.

This technique is especially beneficial for children who are on the cusp of discovering something new, or if you are trying to problem-solve together.

5. Sharing experiences
If children are struggling to explain a situation or how they feel, sharing your own experiences can give them a framework to work within.

For example, if your child is shy because he or she is new, you could explain how you felt when you first joined the setting and how making friends made it much easier. You could then ask your child about making friends, or if there is another solution to this problem.

6. Alternative viewpoints
You can question the situation, looking at it from a different point of view, to help children to empathise and to understand theory of mind (how others may be feeling). For example, questioning how Goldilocks’ mum might have felt when Goldilocks did not come home from the forest. Or asking what Sleeping Beauty might have dreamed about.

You can also use this technique to explore alternative solutions to practical problems, such as how to rearrange an obstacle course.

7. Tune in to children
This means having an in-depth understanding of children’s interests, background and context. When using positive questioning, you need to be conscious not only of the words being spoken, but of children’s body language, tone of voice and how comfortable they seem. It may be that asking questions and extending conversations is not suitable at that moment, but you could pick up the conversation later on.

It is much better for children to enjoy having discussions, than for them to be forced into conversations.

Thinking out loud

Vocalising your own internal questions can seem unnatural, but it gives children an example to follow and is a very supportive technique – especially for those working on their critical thinking skills…

• Try this initially with simple problems, such as thinking out loud how many cups to put out for snack.

• Encourage children to help you find a solution, modelling the methods, such as counting how many children are sat down.

• Extend this with more complex problems as children’s critical thinking develops.

Kathy Brodie is an Early Years Professional and trainer based in East Cheshire; for more information, visit www.kathybrodie.com or follow @kathybrodie

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