Q: Teachers urge parents to talk with their kids about school each day, but my 9- and 10-year-old boys just give me one-word answers. I would love to have conversations with them. How?
A: You're right: Educators, school psychologists and administrators tout the benefits of checking in with your kids through casual conversation. You can learn about what excites them, who they're hanging out with and why, which teachers are as tough as nails and who's a bully on the bus. Daily conversations also build vocabulary, reinforce concepts taught and model oral language skills.
"Casual conversations about school let your children know you're interested in their most important job -- being a responsible student," says Shirley Harden, a retired Maryland principal who coaches parents. She says that once you get the hang of skillful questioning, it will become easy and fun and your boys will start remembering things to tell you when they get home.
Try these tips to engage your boys.
-- Pick a good time to talk. If you ask, "How was school?" the minute they walk in the door, you will likely hear, "OK. What's to eat?"
Let kids decompress and follow their after-school routines, such as eating a snack, playing, doing homework and having dinner. Talk during a meal, while watching TV or before bedtime.
"Some of the best conversations come during family reading time, or other nightly rituals," says Harden. "Kids are relaxed, and if they're excited about a topic they'll want to tell you, and if they're worried about something it will likely surface."
-- Don't ask, "How was school today?" Avoid questions that elicit one-word answers. Instead, ask: Who did you meet today? What are the biggest differences between school this year and last year? Tell me what surprised you today? Which classmates did you sit with at lunch? What do you think your teacher will ask tomorrow? What questions did you ask your teacher today?
"Try to start a conversation that raises topics you can come back to in the following days," says Harden.
-- Focus on the positive. Asking, "What is the best thing about your class schedule?" will give you more insight into the school day than, "Do you still have to rush to get from gym class to reading?" Positive questions can still give your child a chance to express concerns, says Harden, while negative questions can shut down a conversation.
-- Ask questions that get kids to think. Say you're reviewing your fifth-grader's social studies homework. It's better to ask, "What factors led to the Civil War?" than to ask, "What year did the Civil War start?" The former question tests for conceptual understanding. If your son has that, he probably knows the answer to the latter.
-- Focus on facts rather than emotions. Ask, "What was the most interesting thing the new substitute teacher said today?" rather than, "Is your substitute teacher nice?"
-- Be a patient listener. Kids (and adults) often need time to formulate their responses, so ask your question and then wait.
"Don't rush to fill the void," advises Harden. "Let them think through their answers."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)