Getting teenagers to talk and confide in their parents is a hot topic. But face it. These communication skills should be modeled and practiced from the time your child is very young.

Don’t we all want to hear about our child’s day–that she was included on the playground, had someone to sit with at lunch, understood what was going on in class, and most importantly had a “good” day? Recently I heard a mom’s conversation with her kindergartner after his first day of school. Her line of questioning went something like this, “Did you have fun today? Who did you play with at recess?” “Nobody?” “Wasn’t Jimmy there?” “How about gym class?” And so on, while her little one relayed his side of the story which sounded like he was a loner all day. In reality he was happy and enjoyed his first day and mom was a wreck because of his answers.

As a speech language pathologist, I have had to start and keep conversations going with kids from 1-18 (both ages have their challenges!) for over 30 years. So I want to offer some tips for getting your preschool and elementary-aged child to open up about school when she comes home:

  1. Ask open-ended questions. Surely, “How was school today?” does not bring about the most conversation. For many young children it is too vague and they need a more specific question to help them remember their day. Avoid questions that can be answered in one word–especially “yes” or “no.” Rather try some open-ended questions like, “Tell me about the game you played at recess today” or “That’s a beautiful picture of the farm. Tell me about it.” or “I wonder what you had for lunch today.”
  2. Use their artwork or take-home papers to start conversations. A research study by Marvin and Privratsky (1999) showed that when 4 year old children brought home objects from preschool including their art projects, the children referred to recent school activities significantly more than when they did not. Take advantage of these masterpieces, asking open ended questions of your little artist and don’t forget to listen. . Showing interest in their work can increase their self-esteem as well as link school and home. Recently a mom picked up her kindergartner’s two papers. One had a few identifiable drawings of sea creatures and the other was scribbly lines. She started describing the recognizable crab and fish and then pointed to the other drawings, pausing to let her son fill in. He proudly identified the drawings in question and went on to talk about how he made them. When asked about the scribbles he said, “Oh that just says I love you!”
  3. Know their school schedule so you can start talking about library day, gym or art class. “What kind of books did the librarian show you today?” or “What did you find at the library?” “Tell me about the books that you chose.” Take the time to sit down and read the books with her, affirming her choice, and encouraging reading.
  4. Know the themes they are learning–apples and farms, communities, the seashore, China or the rain forest. Have fun exploring the topics on the internet together, learning new facts to expand on her knowledge and discussing the themes.
  5. Model sharing about your day. “I had a great day today. I talked to grandma and grandpa about…” or “I met a new friend and we had coffee at the beach.” It is important to share your interests, friends, challenges and joys with your kids so they see that communication modeled for them. There is nothing quite so rewarding as when my grown sons say to me, “How was your day today, Mom?”
  6. Take time at the dinner table to talk about a good and bad thing that happened that day. Knowing that the family gathered at dinner is a safe place to share joys and disappointments, is comforting. Recently a mom of a 1 year-old told me that at her daughter’s first year check-up, one of the many questions the pediatrician asked her was, “Do you eat dinner as a family and talk about your day?” That pediatrician gets it! If parents start modeling communication with their one-year-old on a daily basis, they are more likely to have a teenager who knows how to share her day. Make it a game of thinking of a good and bad, happy and sad, or fun and challenging event that day. By encouraging your young child to talk about a hard thing that happened that day, you can provide emotion words to help her express herself such as, “You must have been disappointed when Sally didn’t let you join the game.” or “I bet you were frustrated when they were out of your favorite dessert at lunch.”
  7. Use books as conversation starters. Choose a book about school and see what conversation unfolds. For a laugh out loud, read What a Day it was at School! by Jack Prelutsky. His collection of poems about school–tipping over with a heavy backpack, throwing food in the cafeteria, hopelessly competing with a classmate in gym, or emitting an accidental noise during class–is outrageously silly, getting a child laughing and connecting the stories to her school experience. After reading the book to a second grader, I asked her what happens in her school if someone throws food at lunch? She went on to tell me the rules, and all about Cody and Will when they made a mess in the cafeteria.
  8. Take advantage of your child stalling at bedtime. One mother shared with me that if she lingers with her first-grade son after stories are read and the bedtime routine is over, she can count on about 10 minutes of chat about his day. He’s smart–he knows what mom likes and how to stay up longer!
  9. Listen, listen, and listen. Once your child gets started talking about her day, hold off more questions and let her go. As parents, we tend to jump in with more questions, but pausing is important. A child gains confidence as she relates her day and you affirm her.