‘How was school today?’ ‘OK.’ Every afternoon, parents across Australia get the same frustrating one-word answer. Here are some ideas to get your child talking about school.
Why talking about school is hard
‘How was school?’ is a big question. To answer, your child has to sum up a whole day, and that’s hard for children (and even grown-ups!) to do.
A child might really want to say, ‘My day was so jam-packed with ideas and classes and social stuff that I don’t know where to start’. So it’s easier just to say, ‘OK’.
Some children feel their school experiences are private, so they might not want to share them. This is a normal part of school-age development as children start to shape their own identities and social worlds. But your child still needs to know you’re there when she’s ready to talk.
Why talking about school is important
Talking with your child about the school day shows you’re interested in what’s going on in his life. This interest boosts his mental health, happiness and wellbeing. It can also have a very positive effect on your child’s behaviour and achievement. It shows your child that you value school and education, which encourages him to value it too.
Talking together about school also helps you get to know more about what’s expected of your child at school, how she learns and how she handles challenges. It can help you understand when she’s feeling less interested in school or having problems.
When you’re in touch with your child’s feelings about school, you’re more likely to see problems before they get too big. This way you can work on overcoming challenges together.
And talking about school issues – like school projects or friendship problems – is also a great chance for you to express your family values about things like teamwork, respect for self and others, friendships, relationships, problem-solving and so on.
Strategies for talking about school with your child
Your child will probably be tired and hungry or thinking about other things when she first gets home. So easing the transition from school or after-school activities to home can help your child feel more like talking.
If you pick your child up from school, try to avoid asking him lots of questions straight away. You can just let your child know that you’re glad to see him, and talk about non-school topics for a while. Younger children will probably also like help unpacking their bags and going through any notes before you ask about school.
Saving questions about homework for later on can also take the pressure off!
Every afternoon or evening will be different. Even if your child usually loves to share her day with you, there’ll be days when she doesn’t want to talk. Sometimes it’s a matter of sensing her mood and picking the right moment. Some days there might not be a right moment at all, and that’s OK.
Simple, positive and specific questions about parts of the day can get your child talking. For example:
- What was fun?
- What did you like best at school today?
- What does your classroom look like at the moment?
- Who did you play with at school today? Who did you talk to?
- What subjects did you do today?
- What did you buy or take for lunch?
- What projects are you working on at the moment?
When you ask your child about his day, try to use open-ended questions. These invite answers that are longer than ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘OK’. For example, you could ask your child what he did in class after recess.
Tips for talking about school with primary school children
These tips can help you get a conversation going:
- Make time to talk. This can often be when you’re doing something with your child. For example, your child might like to talk when you’re walking the dog or preparing dinner together.
- Give your child your full attention if she wants to talk with you about her day.
- Take seriously whatever your child tells you. For example, you can say things like, ‘That’s really interesting. Then what happened?’ or ‘And how do you feel about that?’
- When you talk about the school and teachers with or in front of your child, use respectful language. For example, ‘I can see that’s frustrating, but Mrs Adams is your teacher and you need to speak respectfully to her’, or ‘Yes, that seems unfair, but perhaps you don’t know the whole story’.
- Use active listening techniques. These can help you pick up on your child’s feelings and work out whether he wants to talk.
Your child’s behaviour and communication style might seem to change overnight when she starts school. Suddenly everything’s ‘awesome’, or she’s rolling her eyes at everything you say. She’s learning all kinds of new things from her friends and teachers, so this is part of her developing a unique identity.
Ideas for talking about school with secondary school children
As he develops into the teenage years, your child might want more privacy and time to himself, which can make it harder to talk about school. But this isn’t the end of your warm, close relationship – it’s just that getting some distance from you is how your child becomes a more independent individual.
Staying connected to your child can help you balance respect for her independence and privacy with your need to keep in touch with her life. It can also help you pick up on the moments when she’s ready to talk.
Ask about links between schoolwork and future plans
At this age, your child might be more open to talking about the links between his schoolwork and what he wants to do when he’s finished school.
So rather than asking about your child’s day-to-day activities, you could try focusing on future plans. For example, ‘How’s the webpage you were designing in information technology coming along? Are you still thinking you might want to get into web design after school?’
Look out for signs of problems
Even if you usually have a good relationship with your child, she might not always tell you when she’s having a tough time. If she’s upset or nervous about discussing school or refuses to answer a question, there might be a bigger problem.
If you’re worried, you could try talking to other adults who know your child. Contacting the school or other appropriate professionals might help too. But it isn’t a good idea to talk to your child’s friends about your child because this might upset your child.
Stay calm around tricky topics
Conversations with your teenage child about school might bring up tricky topics. Try to stay calm – this is a great chance for you to be supportive and show your child that you value his honesty.
If your child doesn’t want to talk to you about a tricky topic, she might chat with someone else – her other parent (especially of the same gender, if it’s a personal issue), a trusted relative or friend, or a school counsellor.
Video Tricky conversations
Discussing tricky topics can be uncomfortable and sometimes happens unexpectedly. This short video demonstrates various ways that parents might handle tricky conversations with teenagers, by staying calm and really listening, and using these opportunities to help a teenager make responsible decisions.