Are these the standard answers you get when you ask your children about school? And, sometimes, those are the answers on a good day. At least those are better than a dismissive shrug of the shoulders.

After-school specials and commercials painted a fantasy world of family life for many of us, as we watched child and parent huddled together over milk and cookies, deep in conversation about the world of school, friends, and beyond. In the real world, it sometimes feels like pulling teeth to even get those one word answers.

Part of the problem may lie in the questions we ask children. When the question is, “how was your day?” “fine” may feel like a completely acceptable answer. Well-formed questions invite the person who was asked to walk through a door into an interesting interaction. There are three keys to crafting an effective conversation starter:

1. Ask open-ended questions

Close-ended questions can be answered with a one-or two-word answer, and they tend to limit conversation. Open-ended questions require more than one word, and usually some thought to answer.

2. Ask for specific information

The question, “what did you do at school today?” is open-ended, but is also general, and a quick one-word answer like “I played” answers the question without getting into specifics that might continue the conversation. Instead, the statement, “tell me two things you learned today,” inspires both thought and requires a child to provide a more complex response. Specific questions also help narrow a child’s focus to certain aspects of their day, which makes a more in-depth answer more likely.

3. Start with your own story

Children are not born to naturally understand the give-and-take of conversation. As with almost everything else in life, it is up to adults to teach them. You can model these rules by starting with a statement such as: “Start thinking of your favorite part of the day, but first, let me tell you something that I enjoyed today.”

The most important aspect of encouraging conversation is to make your child feel as though they are listened to and respected when they’re speaking. That means putting down your phone, muting the volume on the TV, and making eye contact (if you are not driving), so a child knows they have your attention while speaking. This feeling of being the center of your world will make it more likely they will engage in conversation in the future.

When looking to have in-depth conversations, get creative with how you start. Here are some ideas to inspire your own questions

  • What happened that was interesting today?
  • Tell me three things you noticed today.
  • Tell me something you did well today.
  • If you had to pick one word to describe today, what would it be?
  • What was the most fun thing that happened today?
  • Did your day go how you thought it would when you woke up this morning?
  • If you have to give today a rating from one to ten, what would it be?

–Michelle Salcedo, M.Ed., Chief Academic Officer of The Sunshine House

Ms. Salcedo has been in early education for more than 30 years. She has worked as a teacher, director, family educator, curriculum coordinator, and teacher trainer. She has traveled the country as a trainer and key note speaker, and is the author of the upcoming book Uncovering the Roots of Challenging Behavior: Create Responsive Environments Where Young Children Thrive. She has a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and an undergraduate degree in Developmental Psychology with an emphasis in Family Life Education.

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