Getting Kids to Open Up and Engage in Conversation

Critical and creative questions engage kids in conversation.

Critical and creative questions
engage kids in conversation.

Sometimes it seems like “I dunno” and “nothin’” are the only two phrases kids know. So how can we help children share more of their thoughts?

First, we gotta toss the prosecutor approach.  Sure, we’re asking questions because we’re interested in their lives, but they often hear us as interrogators or as testing them to say the “right” answer.

So to get kids to open up and talk more, first tell them that most of life’s questions don’t really have one right answer. Then start asking them questions where any answer is game.

Initially, some kids may shy away from even creative, open-ended questions. If so, they can first listen to conversations where everyone is giving a different answer to the same question—and all answers are treated with respect.

Also note that responding “Great answer!” is counterproductive. Kids may interpret that to mean, “Oh, that person got it right.”  In contrast, if we praise the thought process (i.e. “I’m impressed with your thinking”), then we encourage kids to share even more.

Open-ended questions can range from silly to serious. Here are some examples of a variety of critical and creative-thinking questions to get your kids talking:

  • How do you think socks got their name?
  • Since they don’t use pans to cook on the planet Zala Mala, what do they use them for?
  • Would Goldilocks want to be friends with Little Red Riding Hood? Why or why not?
  • What would a queen’s bathtub look like?
  • How do you think the idea of toothpaste began?
  • Do you think kids should have a bedtime? Why or why not?
  • Do you think schools should have a dress code? Why or why not?
  • What might frighten a parent?

What are some other open-ended questions to ask kids?

Celebrating Parent-Teacher Conferences

Parent-teacher conferences are always cause to celebrate.

Parent-teacher conferences are
always cause to celebrate.

Sometimes, parent-teacher conferences don’t turn out as everyone hoped.   Here’s why conferences often go south and how they can be tweaked to ensure a positive experience.

1.  Report cards are often top-secret.

What’s the downside of waiting to reveal report cards at conference time? Well, a lot of kids (and parents) develop pre-conference anxiety. Parents will also be unprepared for the unexpected.

Tweaked: Ask if you and your child can see the report card prior to the conference. That way, if something unexpected appears on the report card, you have time to reflect, rather than react.

2.  Conferences are often exclusive.

Not sure why the child is regularly left out of a meeting that is all about him. (Don’t think any of us would go for our boss asking us to stay home while she discusses our performance with another co-worker.)

Tweaked: Ask if your child can also attend the conference. Regardless of the answer, your child will appreciate that you wanted to include him.

3.  Conferences are one-sided assessments.

Since we all benefit from feedback, why not ask everyone to reflect?

Tweaked: Challenge your child to create and mark a report card that assesses her teacher’s effectiveness. You, too, can evaluate a number of areas such as parent/teacher communications and clarity of assignments.

4.  Conference discussions often forget who’s in charge.

The teacher says Billy pushes kids while standing in line. Is she hoping the parents will solve a problem that happens at school?  The parents share that Billy takes forever to get dressed in the morning. Are they hoping the teacher will solve a problem that happens at home?

Tweaked: Propose that teachers and parents are each in charge (i.e. comes up with the solutions to move forward) whenever the child is on their watch.

It’s also helpful to come to the parent-teacher conference with questions. That’s because questions shift a discussion back to the brain’s cortex, thus bypassing potential defensive reactions (someone starts arguing his point) or retreat reactions (someone shuts down and is no longer processing any info).

Here are some generic questions that parents or teachers can ask whenever they sense a conference needs a little positive nudge.

  • How do you see moving forward?
  • What were you hoping I’d do with that information?
  • How are you thinking I’m hearing that information?

After the conference, go celebrate with your child. That goes for all report cards, regardless of the grades.  And what will you be celebrating? You’ll be toasting that learning is an on-going process. You’ll be celebrating that there’s more to your child than what’s noted on the report card.

To underscore that point, hand your child another report card that reflects what your child already shines in.  There’s nothing phony or condescending about this.  After all, a child who earns an A+ in Lego Construction may just end up being a world-renowned architect.

How to Stop Kids’ Whining – Part 2

There is a lot more smiling when the whining ends.

There is a lot more smiling when the whining ends.

On a 1:10 scale, how badly do you want to end whining?

If you paused or said anything less than a ten, then the tips below probably won’t be useful to you.  No whining is an all-or-nothing deal.  However, if you’re game, here’s how you can end whining today.

First, we gotta chuck prior advice. How many times have you tried to ignore whining–only to have your child’s endurance outlast yours?  Second, no more telling kids: “Use your words.”  That’s about as effective as telling someone who’s upset to calm down.

Some parents may also need to do something overt. For example, families can bury all their (imaginary) whining in a hole in the backyard, or parents can post Whine-free Zone signs around the house.  Most of all, parents need to tell kids it’s not in their best interest to clutter prime cortical real estate with a whining brain map.

With the above in place, here are three effective ways to respond to whining:

1. Make the situation worse if the child whines.

Suppose a child is told to clear the table, and she responds with:  “Why do I have to do it? It’s not fair. I did it last night.”

The parent responds: “Now you can also sweep the floor. Was there anything else you’d like to add?”  If the child whines yet again, the parent says, “Great. Now you can also take out the trash.”

2. Teach the child to explore options.

Suppose a child complains he’s too tired to get his homework done on days he has soccer practice. Help the child start thinking in terms of solutions by asking questions:

“What are your options? Could you go to bed earlier and do your homework in the morning?  Could you talk to your teacher to see if there’s any flexibility in homework deadlines? What else is possible?”

3. Use humor.

We’re all cranky at times.  When my girls were little and we took long car trips in a jam-packed car, they’d sometimes start to complain about being so cramped.  So my husband and I would start whining with each other over who would end their whining. That made the girls smile, and the whining ended.

If we believe we can eliminate whining, we really can make it go away. And then . . .the  only “whine” in our house is the kind that comes with cheese.

How to Stop Kids’ Whining-Part 1

We Can End Kids' Whining.

We can end kids' whining.

In Vegas, 30:1 odds are not considered good.  But to a kid who’s known to whine?  Hey, those odds are great.  That kid doesn’t care if 29 out of 30 times his whining falls on deaf ears. It’s that one time when it works—that keeps whining alive on a regular basis.

But there’s a downside to the occasionally effective whining.  It gets registered in the brain as being useful, so the child tries it again and again.

However, I don’t think people aspire to have whiners in their lives. Ever heard of someone looking for a spouse or boss or in-law who whines?

The truth is . . . whining children often evolve into whining adults.

It’s not just the bleak prospect of whining kids becoming whining grown-ups that should make us pause. Whining is the polar opposite of a cortex response, which is the kind of answer that we actually want our children to give.

For example, when our kids perceive something as unfair, we hope they’ll communicate in a way that shows reflection and thought.  When our kids are frustrated by something troublesome, we hope they’ll explore options and creative solutions. That’s a cortex way of looking at a situation or problem.

In contrast, whining skips over all that cortical thinking and leaps right to holding someone else responsible for the present misery.  And when that person doesn’t respond in kind?  Well, more whining (of course).

The good news?  Whining is not related to some neurological underdevelopment of the lower or higher centers of the brain.  Whining only happens because we allow it.

Interested in eliminating whining from your life?

How to Stop Kids’ Whining-Part 2 will appear in the next post.

Academic Versus Play-Based Kindergarten

When the curriculum is in sync with natural brain development, everyone smiles.

When the curriculum is in sync with natural brain development, everyone smiles.

The hoopla began once Disney offered refunds to folks who bought Baby Einstein videos. Defenders of the videos insisted their children benefited from their time in front of the screen. Others gleefully took jabs at parents who thought watching them would make kids smarter.

But neither group asked the most relevant questions:  Just how do young kids’ brains develop, and how can we use that information to provide the best learning environment for children?

With such questions, we can hardly pick on just Baby Einstein videos.  Heck, kindergarten curriculum has also changed radically. Yet last I heard, today’s kids’ brains aren’t developing any differently than previous generations.  Nope, we’ve just changed what we demand at an early age.

Now if a five-year-old isn’t sitting still all day in school, we sometimes call it Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder—or some other diagnosis—rather than ask: Would we perceive that same child differently if he were in a play-based kindergarten?

Unfortunately, I’ve met too many adorable young kindergartners who have already experienced failure. That’s why I’m jealous of countries that use curriculum based on natural brain development.

For example, movement, intuition, images, and rhythm are mostly associated with the right side of the brain, and reading, writing, and math are mostly associated with the left side.  Turns out the right side has a burst of development between the ages of four to seven, whereas the left side gets going between the ages seven and nine.  So are we surprised that Denmark boasts nearly 100% literacy—and doesn’t present formal reading instruction until age eight?

But then, why stop with Disney and their Baby Einstein videos?  Why not hold schools accountable, as well? Challenge educators to provide research that shows today’s young children’s brains are different than kindergartners of past generations.  Have them prove that there’s no link between the recent accelerated academic push and the number of kids who are struggling in school.

And if they can’t substantiate claims that academic kindergartens are far better for young brains than play-based ones . . . . will millions of school kids also get a refund?

Helping Kids Transition – Part 2

There are a variety of techniques to help kids transition.

There are a variety of techniques to help kids transition.

At the Brain Highways Center, every child transitions 15 times during a 45-minute class. Here’s what we recommend and why it works.

1. Be goofy: Humor and novelty override primitive reflex responses.

  • Sing directions in a baritone and soprano voice.
  • Tell directions with an extreme accent.
  • Pretend you don’t know how to do what’s being asked. (“Do I put my shoes on my nose?”)

2. Add visual, tactile, and auditory cues: If there’s static in one or more sensory channels, a multisensory approach helps ensure comprehension.

  • Put on a wild-looking hat whenever it’s time to switch activities.
  • Remove playing cards until only the joker remains (then it’s time to switch!)
  • Fly your child (like an airplane) to the next activity.
  • Play or sing the same song right before (fill in the blank).

3. Add speed: There’s no time to get distracted while racing.

  • Record how long it takes your child to (fill in the blank). Challenge your child to beat her previous record every time she makes that same transition.

4. Avoid solo transitions: If everyone has to make the switch, there’s no fear-based reaction (i.e. Why me?) from being singled out.

  • Have everyone get out of the pool or leave the park, etc. when it’s time for your child to go to (fill in the blank).

5. Transition during an undesirable activity: We’re all more likely to transition if the current activity is not so fun.

  • Arrange it so your child leaves for the tutor when he’s pulling weeds.
  • Pick your child up from a play date after everyone is already cleaning up.

6. Let your child direct the transition: Kids with an underdeveloped pons and midbrain like to be in control, so they’re more apt to do what they’ve stipulated.

  • Have your child call out a pre-determined word that signals it’s time to switch.

7. Jumpstart the transition: Kids with an underdeveloped pons tend only to see what is right in front of them.  So, give them what they need to get started.

  • Hand the jacket to your child, rather than having her go get it.
  • Put the toy box right in front of your child, rather than telling him to start cleaning up.

What else has worked for you?

Why Kids May Have Trouble Transitioning – Part 1


When we address what's going on with the lower centers of the brain, kids transition easily.

An underdeveloped pons or underdeveloped midbrain or poor proprioception can make it really difficult to shift from one activity to the next. Here’s why.

As soon as kids with an underdeveloped pons perceive something as a threat (it doesn’t have to be real), they react with a fight-or-flight response.  Demand that something needs to happen RIGHT NOW, and the fight just escalates.

If those kids go into flight instead of fight, they delay or postpone the upcoming perceived threat—which makes sense.  How quickly would any of us transition if the next activity required us to jump into a pit of rattlesnakes?

Kids with an underdeveloped midbrain get stuck on a recurring thought (“I want to play with Legos! I want to play with Legos!”).  With that thought spinning in their brain, any new message (e.g. “Time for dinner.”) has slim to no chance of being processed.  Such kids also have trouble filtering unimportant sensory stimuli.  That then makes it difficult to focus on transition directions or to switch activities without being distracted.

Kids with poor proprioception don’t always navigate successfully from Point A to Point B—especially, if there’s a large open space involved in the transition.  So they drift everywhere but in the direction they need to go.

And, of course, a child can have an underdeveloped pons and an underdeveloped midbrain and poor proprioception . . . making the task of transitioning especially challenging.

Can kids make smooth transitions even if the lower brain development is incomplete? Yes.  Such approaches then offer new solutions for parenting kids with Autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and other children who experience difficulty switching from one activity to the next.

Helping Kids Transition  – Part 2 will appear in the next post.  Photo courtesy of parents connect.com

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