Jennifer Boyd discusses how questions boost engagement and build language

Have you ever found yourself in a power struggle with a two-year old? Do you find yourself thinking, ‘if I could only get them to clean up their toys, put on their coat, or get in the car seat?’ What if I told you there is a simple secret that will not only help build your child’s cooperation but also build your child’s language skills? The secret lies in the questions you ask. You can access power to boost your child’s cooperation and language when you commit to reshaping both the questions you ask yourself and the questions you ask your child. 

The questions you ask yourself
When you walk into a room and see your child’s toys strung across the floor you might ask yourself, ‘how can I make my child clean up their toys?’ The common question, how can I make my child…? focuses on control and limits problem-solving potential to only one specific outcome. With a simple tweak this question can be transformed to foster cooperation and help develop executive function skills including time-management, organisation, working memory, emotional regulation, prioritisation, etc. Executive function is how our brain works to plan, focus, attend, and remember. According to the Harvard Center for the Developing Child, executive function skills support our ability to ‘filter distractions, prioritise tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses’. Next time you find yourself asking, how do I make my child…? Try shifting your question to how can I help my child successfully…? In the case of the toys, for example, you could ask, ‘how can I help my child successfully learn the skill of organisation?’ This new question turns the focus away from control and provides the perspective of a partnership where your desire is to teach your child a skill that they are missing. Focusing on teaching a skill opens the door to an endless set of solutions. For a child learning a new skill, it is important to start by providing choices to eventually set them on the path of being able to generate their own solutions. 

The questions you ask your child
Offering positive choices encourages your child to cooperate. In a moment of desperation, you might have found yourself asking your child, ‘do you want to clean up your toys or go to time-out?’ Or ‘do you want to clean up your toys or do you want me to throw them away?’ The structure of these questions offers one positive option and one negative option, and the focus of these questions is control and coercion. According to psychologists Dr. Lisa Legault and Dr. Michael Inzlicht, ‘choices made from internal desires enhance self-regulation and intrinsic motivation; choices motivated by external control do not.’ Changing the structure of your question to include two positive choices changes the focus from control and coercion to supporting your child’s autonomy and building their skills of executive function. Try reframing your question with two-positive choices: ‘do you want to pick up fast or slow? Do you want to pick up the blue blocks or the red blocks?’ Structuring your question to support two positive choices also provides an opportunity for language building. Consider the language skills you want to support and highlight that language in the choices you offer. You can choose two positive choices that highlight the language of categories, function, size, shape, colour, order, concepts, numbers, time, and location. See the table below for some examples.

Are you willing to give it a try? 
By changing the questions, you ask yourself, you can partner with your child to support the development of their executive function skills. Are you willing to shift the question you are asking yourself from how do I make my child…? to how do I help my child successfully…? By restructuring the questions, you ask your child, you can help them build autonomy, skills of self-regulation, and language. Are you willing to change the questions you ask your child from one positive and one negative option to two positive options with a focus on language? Now that you know the secret power of questions, how will your next interaction with your child be different?

Jennifer Boyd
Author: Jennifer Boyd

Jennifer Boyd
+ posts

Jennifer Boyd is a speech-language pathologist and Listening and Spoken Language Specialist, certified Auditory-Verbal Therapist. She currently works across AVUK's clinical, training, and outreach teams remotely from Edinburgh.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here