May I Ask?

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Since young children are in the process of developing their language skills, caregivers sometimes assume what a child is feeling or needs. But, with both adults and children, do we take enough time to ask what they are thinking before responding in a way that may be completely off the mark and not match the reality of the other person’s point of view?

Recently, I’ve been taking note of what people assume, without asking, both with the children in our care and with other adults. Why do we sometimes guess about what people think or what children need or want?

Some of the assumptions that I’ve heard lately are: 

  • “I think that Mrs. Smith (parent) is annoyed with the way we dismiss the children.”
  • “I think Sally (child) is upset because she wanted to paint instead of go outside.”
  • “Ann (colleague) isn’t answering my emails, so she must be angry with me.” 

My question is, “Did you ask?” Often, we might feel uncomfortable asking, or in the case of asking children, teachers simply think they know the child’s thoughts or that the child would not be able to provide a response that clarifies the situation. 

I think we all know how important it is to connect with each other to build strong relationships with children, their families, and our colleagues. Perhaps we sometimes feel that as teachers and directors, we should have the answers and be “in the know”. We might be afraid to insult someone. Or perhaps we are afraid of the answers. 

What are we afraid of?

Are we afraid of the answer?

Are we afraid it will mean more work/time/attention?

Are we afraid we won’t like what we hear?

Are we afraid of looking unknowledgeable, inexperienced, or vulnerable? 

Could it be that we lack the language to ask questions and, therefore, the questions do not come naturally to us? I’ve been sorting through the kinds of questions that might be helpful without appearing meddlesome or intrusive (or in the case of young children, developmentally inappropriate, like the overused, “Why did you do that?” after a child is aggressive). Here are a few. I’m sure you have many more to add to the repertoire. 

With children (respecting their emotions, feelings, their bodies and possessions): 

  • Can you tell me why you’re angry? or, Do you know why you’re angry?
  • Is there some way I can help you feel better?
  • How can I help you remember?
  • Do you need help with that?
  • What can we do so that everyone playing in the block area is happy?
  • What can you both do to make this work out?
  • What’s another way to play so that no one gets hurt?
  • Do you need to stay sad/angry for a while?
  • You seem to be angry. Am I right about that?
  • You seem to be sad. Am I right about that?
  • Would you like a hug?
  • Do you need more time?
  • Would you like to do that by yourself?
  • What would you like to happen now?
  • We have two kinds of drinks. Which would you like?
  • What can I do to help?
  • May I switch your shoes to the right feet/wipe your nose/write your name on the paper/take your picture?
  • I need to change your diaper now, are you ready?
  • Do you need more materials to complete that collage?
  • Should we place your sculpture here to dry and continue tomorrow?
  • What can we do about making sure you get to the toilet in time?
  • What can you do to remember to wash your hands before eating?
  • I see that you are upset. Can you tell me why? 

With parents: 

  • Can you tell me what you do when your child is upset?
  • Can you explain how your family celebrates that holiday?
  • I did not know that about your culture/religion/family. Can you help me learn about it?
  • Can you teach me a few words in your language?
  • Can you help me understand?
  • What would you like me to call you?
  • What do you see as your child’s strengths?
  • What are your happiest moments as a parent?
  • What, if any, concerns do you have?
  • What would you like to see happen?
  • What can I do to make this better? 

With colleagues: 

  • I think we got off on the wrong foot. Can we start over?
  • (Clarify an interaction, restate what the person said and then,) “Is that right?” “Am I understanding you?”
  • How can we make this work so it makes sense for the children?
  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • Is there another approach we can use to solve that problem?
  • What can I do to make this work?
  • What can I do to help improve the discussion/work/relationship/atmosphere?
  • What do we need to do to better communicate?
  • What would you like to see happen?
  • I notice that you did not answer my email, is there another way you prefer communicating? 

As a mentor: 

  • Is there some reason you didn’t take my suggestion?
  • Can you tell me more about why that worked so well?
  • Why do you think that didn’t work?
  • I notice that you are not communicating with the team. Is there some reason for that?
  • What feelings are evoked in you when a child misbehaves or gets angry? 

When I was a director, my staff completed an evaluation of me each year by answering a series of questions contained in a form that I took from an early childhood book about leadership. Other directors thought this was madness. One said, “I would be afraid of what they would say.” It can be daunting but I felt it was important to know how people were feeling, so that if there was a problem, I could address it and, if appropriate, we could work on it together. The fact is, I had to ask. 

Asking questions of each other helps us build greater understanding, and enriches and strengthens our relationships. After all, isn’t asking questions simply saying, “I want to get to know you better?” 

Join the conversation (6 comments)
About the Author Judi Pack

Judi Pack, M.A.Ed. (Early Childhood and Family Studies)

After 25 years as teacher and then director at a school for children from the ages of 2.5 through 8 years old, Judi Pack began working with teachers of young children. She taught graduate courses in early childhood and worked for a childcare resource and referral agency as their early childhood specialist.  Judi has presented workshops at local, national and international conferences She now works as an independent consultant encouraging early childhood professionals to listen carefully to children and to build on their ideas and interests.

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  • Josie Young

    The questions are good, except the one about shoes. There are no wrong feet. Children's feet are all fine. Perhaps it would be more comfortable for the child if you asked if he/she would like to switch shoes so they point to each other? A small point, but many children are literal and hear words differently than adults do.

  • Judith Pack

    Good point Josie Young! Or you might ask if the shoes feel comfortable. If they do, perhaps there is no harm in leaving them. Or you might say, "Maybe we should change them so that your feet will be more comfortable." I wonder, is there any harm in leaving shoes on the "wrong" feet for a short time?

  • Renee Hunt

    I love the idea of using a Director Evaluation. Is there anyway to get a copy of the form you used?

  • Judith Pack

    Renee Hunt. I will try to find it for you.

  • Jeanne Thomas

    Judith, if you are able to share the info about the Director Evaluation, I would also appreciate knowing where I could find it. And I like these sample questions to share with my college students. Thank you for your article.

  • Judith Pack

    Renee Hunt, If you send me your fax number, I can fax it to you. judipack@yahoo.com

View Comments 6
Close

Comments (6)

Leave a Comment
  • Josie Young

    The questions are good, except the one about shoes. There are no wrong feet. Children's feet are all fine. Perhaps it would be more comfortable for the child if you asked if he/she would like to switch shoes so they point to each other? A small point, but many children are literal and hear words differently than adults do.

  • Judith Pack

    Good point Josie Young! Or you might ask if the shoes feel comfortable. If they do, perhaps there is no harm in leaving them. Or you might say, "Maybe we should change them so that your feet will be more comfortable." I wonder, is there any harm in leaving shoes on the "wrong" feet for a short time?

  • Renee Hunt

    I love the idea of using a Director Evaluation. Is there anyway to get a copy of the form you used?

  • Judith Pack

    Renee Hunt. I will try to find it for you.

  • Jeanne Thomas

    Judith, if you are able to share the info about the Director Evaluation, I would also appreciate knowing where I could find it. And I like these sample questions to share with my college students. Thank you for your article.

  • Judith Pack

    Renee Hunt, If you send me your fax number, I can fax it to you. judipack@yahoo.com

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