As kids are getting back into the swing of school, there is always this burning question every parent is dying to ask as soon as their child gets off the bus or into the car, “How was school today?”
It’s a natural question, as it shows parents are interested and curious about their son/daughter’s day. Yet something many of my clients ask me time and time again (and not just at the start of the school year) is “Why does my mom and dad always ask me how my day was?!”
The Complexity of “How Was Your Day?”
This seems like a simple answer: “Because they love you and care about how your day was.” However, parents (and educators) need to remember questions like “How was your day?” requires:
Language Processing & Perspective Taking
“OK, mom is asking about my day so I need to be thinking back to some part of my day I think she would want to hear about, which by the way also involves perspective taking.
Sequencing of Time
“OK, I think today was when Tommy said he liked my shirt or was it yesterday?”, and
“Man, doesn’t she know that school is stressful and the second I step off that bus school is done which means I should not have to think about it!
Outbursts to Being Questioned
So then what happens? Like all good parents we ask the “How was school today” and we get the standard answer (if any) “Fine”. Then you follow-up with, “Well, tell me more. What do you mean fine”.
Now Jonny is really getting agitated because his “plan” at that moment was to have a snack and then play Minecraft for a little while before starting his homework. As a therapist and consultant for individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), I then have parents come into my office and say, “I just ask a little simple question and he blows up. And school says he is fine there and it must be us here at home!”
Then their son/daughter walks in to my office and says, “Why can’t mom and dad learn not to ask me about school and my day. Most days are “fine”, why can’t they be OK with “fine”.
In my work with high functioning individuals on the autism spectrum or who have high cognitive and language abilities but poor social communication and emotional regulation abilities, behavioral outburst at home are more often than not a result of their mental pressure cooker bursting.
Kids with isms, various language impairments, learning disabilities, all struggle with executive function and how to “sort” information taken in during the day. So often when parents ask, “How was school today”, the child’s “cognitive counter top” is too full to process such a simple question, and sometimes it snaps.
Tips for Learning about Your Child’s Day
Here are three simple tips to help with learning about your child’s day and from keeping their cognitive counter top from overflowing or collapsing:
Pick a time of day that is consistent–and not right as you pick them up or as they are walking in from the school bus–to ask the question, “Tell me about one thing you learned about in Science today and one new thing you learned about a boy or girl in your class.”
What you are doing with this question is asking a specific probe about a time of day–that at the start of this should be a time of day/class that is of high interest–and you are asking a social question to help develop your son/daughter’s people file.
For middle school and high school aged kids you may also ask, “Tell me one thing you learned about what is going on after school you may be interested in doing.” Adding on this part for older kids from time to time will help to connect them to their school culture and possibly help them to pay more attention to things being advertised or announcements that are made.
Accept the Answer – “Fine”
Learn to accept “fine”. If accepting “fine” from time to time will allow greater conversation on days when there is something to share, then you accept “fine”. Model that flexibility of being able to accept “fine”. Some days, my day is just “fine”; nothing exciting happened.
However, this also taps into the clinical need to keep addressing perspective taking and the issue of “why” people ask others about their day. Remember, on days when our kids say, “fine” they really may be telling us, “Mom/dad, right now I just can’t perspective take or maybe I just don’t want to right now so the more you push the more I will just become pissed.” Depending on your child, maybe come back and ask again at a later time, like before bed.
Provide a Lead
Lead off this conversation with something about your day–“My day was a bear!” Some kids may ask, “Dad, what do you mean a ‘bear’ of a day?” This gives you the chance to explain what you mean and then ask, “Do you ever have one of those days?” Leading off the conversation with a little information about your day and a little “hook” may spark some interest in this conversation.
Who knew such a long-standing question like “How was school today” can be so complex! We don’t want to stress our kids out by asking them this question; what we really want to do is continue to show that we are thinking about them and interested in their lives.