“How are you doing in school?” Steve asked innocently.  

Emma said, looking down at her feet.

Steve was a friend of the family, 50 years-old.  Emma was an eleven year-old girl who cried herself to sleep because she was so behind her friends in reading.  Steve knew Emma had trouble reading.  He knew she had a tutor, was in a special reading group in school, and that she – like his own daughter – was making great strides.  He cared about Emma, and hadn’t seen her in three months, as he and his family lived 400 miles away in the fun town of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Steve was curious about Emma at this amazing time of her pre-adolescent life.  His question, though, led to silence.

How are you doing in school?  There’s so much wrapped into that question.  Grades, friendships, a need to fit in, to name a few.  There are also personal histories and family expectations as well as personal interactions and a school’s curriculum.   I was intrigued by Emma’s answer: a simple “good” followed by silence.  She didn’t even keep the conversation going with her eyes. She went somewhere else in her head.  To where, we’ll never know. I’ve seen so many teenagers and young children look away when asked such a question.

SMAA’s Powerful Word of the Month is Empathy – an act that requires us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to understand body language, to predict other people’s feelings in advance, to get a sense of additional life circumstances, etc.
A great deal of interpretation goes on in the “empathy process.”  Just like we will never really know what Emma was feeling and thinking when being asked the question about her experiences in school, we will never know – exactly – what our own kids are feeling and thinking when they come home from school, elated about something new, or just darn sad about something that seems mysterious to us as parents.  We can ASK – and it is important to do just that if we are going to strive for empathy as well as work toward an honest, dynamic relationship with our children.  

What to ask?
There is nothing inherently bad or wrong by Steve’s question, how are you doing in school?    The question itself led me to think about other question to ask.  Let me share some questions that have worked wonders for me in the past as a teacher, tutor, aunt, surrogate parent or friend – questions that prompt conversation and/or help me “walk in the shoes” of the teens and children with whom I am coaching (academically).  With these questions, I am better able to venture into a journey of empathy and healthy relationship-building as an integral part of the learning enterprise.

•    If I were a fly on the wall (in your math classroom, English classroom, etc.) what would I see you doing in class?
•    Do you think your grades reflect how well you are doing in school?
•    Do you think your grades reflect how much effort you put into your school work?
•    What classes (at school) do you feel most comfortable in?  What do you do in those classes?  Tell me a bit about the teacher and the students in those classes.
•    When do you feel you are able to do your best work and concentrate best? (e.g. In a particular class?  In the morning?  After sports practice?)
•    What kinds of things distract you in class?
•    If your parents (or your teachers) had all the money in the world to build a perfect study space for you, what would it look like?  What would be in it?
•    Is there anyone in school with whom you feel you can get your best work done?  (Not necessarily your best friends – but with whom you can get paired up and work your best?)
•    What’s the biggest misperception people at school have of you?

And my favorite…thanks to my husband Brad:

•    What’s one thing that people don’t know about you that you wish that they did?

In the case of Steve reuniting with eleven year-old Emma, he may have chosen a question from this list, a version of one of the questions, or an entirely different question that taps into the experiences Steve and Emma already have with each other. Emma, are the kids and teachers at your school getting to see and know the wonderful Emma that I know?  Who makes you laugh the most at school?  Do they make you laugh as much as I do?  What kind of questions have you been asking in school?  What have you been wondering about?

There’s a myriad of questions to ask a kid.  The child or teen may or may not “open up” right away.  He or she may not want to engage in conversation at that moment.  Timing and luck has something to do with the art of conversation – as does practice and a genuine interest in the person with whom we’re speaking.  We can use dull moments in conversations (or, better yet, times when we’re doing all the talking!) to check-in with ourselves.  What are we doing – as a parent, teacher, tutor, friend, etc. –  to put ourselves in the shoes of this child?