Last Monday in the Bergen Record newspaper, Ask the Teacher columnist, Toby Sorge offered some great suggestions for parents on how to get better and more information from their school-age/middle school child regarding that timeless question “What did you learn at school today?”
I invite you to check out his article here if you have a child in that age group. If not, certainly in time you will. However, upon reading the author’s suggestions about the topic, I was inspired to offer the early childhood version of the same advice.
The information you get from your young child’s teacher about their day at preschool is different from what your child may talk about at home. Of course, for important information about eating, sleeping, toileting and learning issues, you should defer to the professionals at your center. At Prime Time, we take family communication very seriously and are constantly seeking better ways to get parents that information on a daily basis. But as parents, you also value the perspective of your young children. You may also believe there is value to hearing about preschool from your child and developing good habits in discussing the day-to-day of school when you are together at home.
Here’s where it gets tricky, however. Because, you know if you have tried this, most children will respond similarly to those referred to in the Sorge article when asked about their day: How was school today? “Good.” What did you do at school today? “Played.” Or worse: “Nothing.”
With young children (ages two to five), the first rule is not to ask. I said this would be tricky. Different from the school age child, the two to five-year-old child, though often able to speak quite articulately, is at a stage in his/her development where they are just beginning to have thoughts (processing) about their experiences outside of those experiences. As adults we call this reflection. It is easy for adults to reflect on our experiences. We’ve had a lifetime of experience in reflecting on our experiences! For the young child, learning to reflect is a skill he or she is building as part of what is called metacognition, or thinking about thinking, thinking about learning, thinking about “who I am at school and who I am at home” among others trying to figure out the same thing. So the issue becomes, How do I support / help my child reflect on his / her experiences, as well as gain insight into his / her perspective on those experiences?
The answer is multi-fold:
- Model the behavior you wish to see. If you want your child to begin to feel comfortable talking about preschool at dinner, ensure that the other people at the dinner table, parents and siblings alike, are reflecting on their days. If you have an older child who you can ask about their day, and you can expect a response with actual information and perspective, this will serve as a great model for your young child to learn how it works. If you have one child, set the example by talking to each other about your day at work, school, home, etc. Your preschooler is less interested in the factoids of your day, but loves to hear you talk, and learns about reflective speaking and storytelling, even if he or she does not seem to be paying much attention at the time.
- Wait for it. Remember, the first rule for right now is don’t ask. As parents, and as adults living in the modern technological age, patience is even more challenging to achieve than ever before. But you must wait for it. It may be at bedtime when you are reading to your child, and something from the story inspires him/her to start talking about the day. It may be in the car on the way to or on the way from school, errands, etc. It may be on the weekends while you are playing together, engaging the hands and fingers in an art process (drawing) or a dramatic play scenario (tea party). Whenever it comes, recognize it, encourage it, and discuss it.
- When it happens, engage in the child’s topic. So it may not be the most ideal time for YOU, the parent, but in order to teach your preschool-age children how important their reflections are, and how much you value their perspective on their own lives, let him or her speak, pay attention, and further the conversation. You further the conversation by engaging in, and maybe even asking a few questions here and there about the issue your child has raised. It does not need to make perfect sense to you as it begins to pour from the child’s lips (because once they get going, it often begins to tumble out like an overfilled clothes-dryer). Speak from your perspective on whatever it is they are talking about: friendship, sharing, fairness, teachers, food, toys, television shows, winning, losing…Whatever it is your child is talking about, actively engage in the conversation as a participant, not an interviewer or journalist.
- Try not to ask too many questions. Questions shift the power of the conversation to what is important to you, the parent, inadvertently devaluing the topics and subject matter the child may have brought up in the first place. When you engage as an interested participant you accomplish more than you may think: You model listening (and you practice listening). You positively reinforce your child’s expression through talking. You reinforce to them that they are valuable people worth listening to (self-esteem and character building). You allow the child the space and time to form the thoughts and expressions at a pace and rate that is developmentally appropriate for his/her development and skill set.
It is most important to learn and understand that even up through the school age years, your child is still forming the capacity to communicate thoughts and perspective through language. Therefore the best thing we can do as parents in support of the child’s development of school/ life preparedness is to behave in a way that positively reinforces the desired behavior, itself. There will be plenty of time later on to agonize over the content. At that point I will refer you back to Toby Sorge’s column.
Michael Reisman is Director of Operations for Prime Time Early Learning Centers in NJ and NY.