kids

"What makes you say that?" The 3 questions you can use to help connect with your kids.

"How many more times can I pretend to smile about these new kids shoes?" I asked myself as my two-year-old daughter tore down our hallway, bumping off the walls to steady herself.

If you’re anything like me, we’re so caught up picturing what’s coming up, needs to be done, or is due soon, that it can be a struggle to be present, especially when we’re talking to kids.

Especially when it involves showing you how fast they can run in their new shoes – for the thirtieth time.

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Over the years as a dad, teacher, school leader, and teaching coach, I've noticed adults often miss opportunities to really connect with kids.

Not every moment with kids or students is as simple or low key as stomping in new shoes. 

Some situations can be highly emotional, heightened and intense. Where people – kids and adults alike – have been escalated, excited, and on edge.

From heartbreaking and upsetting situations after chairs have been thrown across classrooms, fights have rampaged, or students have broken down in tears, to moments where people break into that very rare smile – the "Aha!" smile – of pride and elation after they’ve achieved something so incredible they’ve astounded themselves.

Whatever the situation, there are always moments where people – big and small – are seeking connection.

Often, it’s just before or after a meltdown they’re most seeking it. (Once it hits that crisis point, talking or reasoning is nearly impossible – just ask my two young daughters).

Depending on your little person, or the situation, these moments can involve fidgeting, pacing, going quiet, becoming more clingy, avoiding people, heading outside to climb a tree, or as my older daughter does, giving you a whole bunch of updates in a short span of time.

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Over the years, I've tried out different questions and phrases that have helped me navigate a range of conversation. Here are three that can help.

Question #1: What makes you say that?

This question is a little beauty. 

No matter the seriousness of the conversation, it can give both the speaker and the listener insights. 

Even better, it can help you during a more escalated conversation, like the time a fired up Year 5 student stormed out of a classroom after yelling at their teacher and knocking over a few chairs:

Me: "Thanks so much for your time, and for taking those breaths."

Student: (Takes a breath) "There’s no point even talking."

Me: (Pause for a good couple of seconds... which may feel awkward at first.)

Me: "What makes you say that?"

Student: "She never listens to me, it’s always like I’m the one in trouble. I always have to move away from all my mates. None of them ever have to move away."

Me: "You sound a little upset and frustrated..."

Student: "Yeah, I am. I feel like I’m always the one in trouble, even for the smallest things."

From that one question, we were able to name how the kid was feeling, what had been happening, what they wanted things to be like in the future, and what they would do to help that happen.

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At home, my wife and I often throw this one in during brekky or dinner.

We might start with asking them how they slept, about kinder the day before, or why they suddenly might not like peanut butter on toast when it was their absolute favourite thing yesterday.

Like anything new, kids (and adults) benefit from seeing others modelling how to do something. So, when we’re asking each other about our days my wife and I will model asking and answering this.

You’ll know it’s really hit the mark when they start throwing it back at you... even when you’re asking them to quickly get in the car because we really have to get to kinder, right now.

Tips when using this question:

  • Leave a pause before asking, otherwise it can come across like you’re testing them.

  • Check your tone. You want to be – and sound – curious... not like you’re in a courtroom.

  • Drop the volume. Raising the volume raises the energy, too.

Question #2: If you did know, what might you say?

I love asking this question whenever I’m out on yard duty. Often we’ll get kids running up after having a dispute with their mates. 

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After I ask why their friend acted the way they did, or why the argument broke out, I’ll get something usually along these lines:

Student: She just screamed at me for no reason.

Me: Why’d that happen?

Student: (Shrugs) I dunno.

Me: If you did know, what might you say?

Student: (Long pause) Well, that I’d been kicking her dinosaur over and annoying her, I guess.

After years of trying this one out, I’ve discovered the power is in asking the question and then shutting up. 

It’ll feel awkward, but give them time. Especially if it’s the first time you roll it out with your child or students.

You can also change it up and say, "If I asked them, what might they say?"

I think this can sometimes free the person up as it’s not "them" speaking, but someone else. More often than not they are right on the money with what caused the situation. Which leads us to a nice little follow up...

Question #3: If you could go back, what would you do differently?

Use this one when you can see and hear your little person is calm. 

If in doubt, wait a little longer. Depending on their age, you might need to have a cuddle, go for a slow amble down the street, or give them a little bit of alone time in a place at home that’s special to them. (If you’re not sure what helps your little human, ask them where and when they feel safe/calm/quiet).

Just the other week I was chatting with a boy in Year 6. 

He’d made a less than desirable choice, after getting overwhelmed during class. 

After everything had happened, we were strolling around the yard. I like to get kids moving about while we have these chats as it makes it feel less formal and reduces a feeling of confrontation.

Me: Everyone’s allowed to feel safe here, that’s something we all believe here. I’m wondering, if you could go back, what would you do differently?

Student: Probably not scream and yell.

Me: (Long pause) What else?

Student: Well... I’d probably take a breath and say I needed time out. Or I’d walk away from those people and ask for space.

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Me: (Pause) Those sound like great ideas. Which one should we say we’ll try out next time? (So then we can tell the teacher next time).

Tips when using this question:

  • Yep, leave a pause AND check that tone.

  • Limit eye contact while asking.

  • Try strolling, drawing, or a similar side-by-side activity while chatting.

  • Vary it with, "If we had a magic wand and could go back in time, what would you do differently?"

It’s important to say, while I wish there was a silver bullet that allowed us to solve every single problem, every single time, it hasn’t appeared as yet. This means sometimes you will nail the timing, tone, and delivery of these questions... and they might not fully hit the mark.

That’s okay. If, and when, that happens, embrace the moment, breathe slowly, and stay there beside your little human.

The fact you are there, taking an interest, makes it clear you care and adds huge deposits into the bank of connection our kids are always seeking to build up.

Dan Steele is an assistant principal, teaching coach and dad of two with a masters in educational leadership. If you're interested in more posts by Daniel, head to his blog Upgrade Think Learn or at Instagram @upgradethinklearn.

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