BND Magazine

August 17, 2014

'Take time': How to talk with your kids about school

Sometimes Myles Daly feels like talking about his school day. Sometimes he doesn't.

Mom Heather Holland-Daly tries not to rush the 9-year-old, who's entering fifth grade at Union Elementary School in Belleville.

"Sometimes I just have to wait him out," she said.

Myles is almost always hungry when he gets home from school. Often, he's more talkative after eating a banana or apple.

Sometimes dialogue happens spontaneously a little later, when Heather is helping Myles with homework. She operates a home jewelry business. Husband Tim is a theater manager.

"Kids have so much at school they have to be accountable for," said Heather, 48. "I think it helps if I give (Myles) some time to play video games or jump on the trampoline. He just needs a little time to himself to retool."

Timing can be important when trying to get information from children about school.

"I don't know that you need to hit the kiddos up immediately when they get in the car or walk in the door," said Matt Klosterman, superintendent of Belleville District 118 schools.

"They may need a little time to relax or have a snack. They just finished six or seven hours of work. They may not be interested in talking about it right away."

Klosterman points out that each child is different. One of his three sons used to hit the ground running with conversation after school. Another was willing to answer questions, and the other preferred to keep quiet.

Experts agree that discussions about school are vital to success, whenever they happen.

Even short chats help parents detect or anticipate problems, monitor progress and show children they care.

"You need to take that time out of your day and listen to them," said Susan Price, a school psychologist and director of Special Services for District 118. "Put down the phone. Give them your full attention."

Klosterman and Price suggest parents ask open-ended questions to push children beyond one-word answers.

"Typically, the question is, 'How was your day today?'" Klosterman said. "And that offers (the child) the opportunity to say 'Good' or 'Bad,' which pretty well ends the conversation."

A better question might be, "What was your most fun activity at school?" followed by "Why?"

The question "What did you do in math today?" may yield the response "Nothing." Instead, a parent could say, "Tell me about something you did in math."

Discussions don't always have to be about schoolwork. Parents can learn by asking "What did you eat for lunch?" or "Whom did you play with on the playground?"

Price has three children, ages 4, 7 and 9.

She likes to restate what they have told her, mainly to make sure she understands, but also to acknowledge (and perhaps reinforce) what they are feeling or thinking.

Price warns parents against knee-jerk reactions and judgments that could cause children to become upset or abruptly end after-school chats.

"Listen with an open mind, even if you don't agree with them, even if you would categorize it differently," she said. "Let them state their facts. Let them state their opinions. Let them tell their story."

Information sharing doesn't have to be limited to kids, either.

The Dalys occasionally try a technique that's used regularly by a relative: Everyone at the dinner table has to share something about his day.

"That includes the adults," Heather said.

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