By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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Mum and dad talking to teenager about school
 
‘How was school today?’ ‘OK.’ Every afternoon, parents across Australia get the same frustrating one-word answer. Here are some ideas to encourage your child to talk with you about how things are going at 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 kids (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’s also been shown to 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 experiencing problems. When you’re in touch with your child’s feelings about school, you’re more likely to see problems when they’re molehills, not mountains. This way you can work on overcoming challenges together.

If your child is having problems, you can start by talking with his teacher. You might also like to read our articles on problems at school: children 9-15 years and helping children 9-15 years with school problems.

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.

For example, you can simply 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 a right moment at all, and that’s OK.

Simple, 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/talk to at school today?
  • 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

  • Give your child your full attention. Put aside whatever you’re doing and look at her when she talks to you about anything, especially school.
  • 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, ‘Mr Smith knows a lot of really important stuff, so you need to listen when he talks’, or ‘I’m sure Ms Adams had a good reason for doing that’.
  • Informal moments are often good opportunities to talk with your child about his day at school – for example, car trips, walking together, cooking or watching TV together.
  • Active listening techniques can help you pick up on your child’s feelings and work out whether she wants to talk.
Your child’s behaviour and communication style might seem to change overnight when he starts school. Suddenly everything’s ‘awesome’, or he’s rolling his eyes at everything you say. He’s learning all kinds of new things from his friends and teachers, so this is all part of him developing a unique identity.

Ideas for talking about school with secondary school children

As she develops into the teenage years, your child might want more privacy and time to herself, 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.

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?’.

Staying connected to your child can help you balance respect for her desire for autonomy, 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.

Even if you usually have a good relationship with your child, he might not always tell you when he’s having a tough time. If he’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.

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. If your child doesn’t want to talk to you about a tricky topic, she might chat with someone else – his 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.
 
To see how different approaches to raising difficult issues can get different results, you might like to check out our Talking to Teens Interactive Guide.
 
 
 
  • Last updated or reviewed 10-05-2011
  • Acknowledgements Centre for Adolescent Health, The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, with contribution from The Education Institute, The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne.