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Are You Listening, Mom?

If your child is having a hard time grasping a concept, one solution might be to have the child explain it to you -- even if you don't know the answer yourself. That's the crux of a study on how kids learn from researchers at Vanderbilt University.

The study tested dual pattern recognition in 4- and 5-year-olds. Kids in the study were separated into three groups. One group repeated answers, a second group explained the pattern to themselves, a third group explained the pattern to their moms. Moms were disqualified from the study if they helped the children learn answers rather than simply listen.

After given the first set of patterns, children who explained the logic behind the pattern to themselves as well as to their moms performed about the same, and well better than those who did not explain the pattern. Then, the researchers gave a second set of patterns designed to transfer the knowledge learned. In that set, children who explained patterns to their moms showed an understanding far better than the other children.

"The basic idea is that it is really effective to try to get kids to explain things themselves instead of just telling them the answer," said Bethany Rittle-Johnson, the study's lead author and assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt's Peabody College of education and human development. "Explaining their reasoning, to a parent or perhaps to other people they know, will help them understand the problem and apply what they have learned to other situations."

Of course, getting kids to talk about their day and things they don't understand might be another story. While I can now solicit information from my six-year-old, he spent a significant number of years in preschool telling me he played with no one and did nothing. What do you do to encourage your children to talk about their day and what they are learning? Do you find that they retain what they've learned better when they tell you about it?

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By Stacey Garfinkle |  January 24, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Preschoolers
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My daughter (8 years) is very talkative and loves to share so it is not hard to get information from her. In fact, some of the other parents (of the boys mostly) will call me for info about school b/c they know my daughter shares so much! But, I do find asking specific questions that cannot be answered yes or no helps. For example, what did you do in math today? (as opposed to - are you still working on division in math?) I also use the "explain it to me" system a lot with math homework. If my daughter is having a problem with her homework I ask her to show me how they learned it in class, using a really simplified version of the problem. Then, once we go through the logic usually she's able to figure out the harder homework problem.

My son, a preschooler, will often answer "I don't know" to my questions but he's getting much better. One thing that really helps is that the teacher sends us a "Peek of the Week" email each week letting us know what she will do in class that week. So, I can use that info to ask specific questions. He's also learning from his sister and after listening to her talk about her day, wants to tell about his, which is very nice. Makes for some fun dinners!

Posted by: PT Fed Mof2 | January 24, 2008 8:56 AM | Report abuse

Glad to hear that the "played with no-one, did nothing" scenario might not be forever. That's apparently what my young daughter does every day at her Montessori school. Since I have observed at her school, I know there is a lot going on, but you'd never know it to ask her.

Posted by: olney | January 24, 2008 9:15 AM | Report abuse

Organic Kid is 9, and when she finishes her homework, I always ask "How did you get that answer?" I ask whether or not the answer is correct. I just want her to explain it to me...partly to get her used to explaining things, and, especially with math, partly because I don't always remember myself how some of these things work! As far as the what did you do today questions, when Organic Kid started preschool we started a new bedtime ritual. Every night when I tuck her in, I ask the same three questions, and we talk about her answers. The questions are "What was the best thing that happened today?" "What was the most challenging thing that happened today?" and "What are you looking forward to most tomorrow?" It really gets us talking, in a thoughtful way, when she's really relaxed and laying in bed surrounded by stuffed animals. It's SAFE, so she can talk about the challenging things. And it's consistent. Even if I'm out of town for work, when she's all tucked in, and surrounded by animals, Organic Guy will call me, hand her the phone, and I still ask. It's become really important to both of us, and it really lets me know what's going on with her.

Posted by: Organic Gal | January 24, 2008 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Since I live vicariusly through the eyes of my children, I've gotten pretty good at pumping them for information.

I think The best way to squeeze them for what happened at school is by asking them "Did anybody get in trouble today?" Kids like to gossip as much as adults do.

Posted by: DandyLion | January 24, 2008 9:30 AM | Report abuse

That makes so much sense!

I can't wait until my son starts telling me stuff. Right now he just repeats me. "What did you do today?" "What did *you* do mommy?"

Posted by: md | January 24, 2008 9:50 AM | Report abuse

This makes a lot of sense to me. I know for me, at least, things "sunk in" more if I helped explain it to one of my friends, or later on, when I worked in groups where you had to lay out your reasoning. I also think it's one of the foundations of the Montessori method: they group a wider age range of kids than traditional schools, with the idea that the older/more advanced kids can help the younger ones learn, and in the process learn it better themselves.

I think next time my daughter is struggling with a concept, I'll try this. I tend to be a little quick to jump in and "clarify" for her, and then I get frustrated when she forgets the basic concept that she seemed to know so well yesterday. Maybe we'd both be better served if I let her "teach" it to me.

Posted by: laura33 | January 24, 2008 10:06 AM | Report abuse

"Did anybody get in trouble today?"

I love this; thanks!!!

Posted by: owlice | January 24, 2008 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Dandylion: no joke: when my son started kindergarten, I would ask him what he did, and he'd always say he doesn't remember. Then a mom said: ask them who got in trouble - and he knows! Usually he knows what they did (which is helpful, then he learns what isn't acceptable!). He's getting better, and we know more about what goes on in the class, so we can ask better questions.

Posted by: atlmom | January 24, 2008 10:58 AM | Report abuse

"I also think it's one of the foundations of the Montessori method: they group a wider age range of kids than traditional schools, with the idea that the older/more advanced kids can help the younger ones learn, and in the process learn it better themselves."

laura - agreed! One of the many reasons I love Montessori. Everyone learns when the teach!

Posted by: Moxiemom | January 24, 2008 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I remember in second and third grade, I would come home and my mother would ask me how school was. My answer, invariably, was "I don't want to talk about it." Partly this was because there were several girls (although not all) who excluded me, but mostly it was because I didn't want to think about school when I wasn't at school.

As for explaining the pattern or reasoning, that doesn't stop with the age group studied. I got through high school calculus because my dad would say, "Explain as much as you can do and then we'll figure out the rest of it." By the time I'd explained what I knew, I'd figured out the rest on my own. He now says that I didn't need his help, but I know that's not the case--I just needed his help in a way that wasn't necessarily obvious.

Posted by: Kate | January 24, 2008 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Sometimes DD and I interview each other.
I tell her about my commute on the metro, who is in the office and who is out etc.

She tells me about her specials, what she ate for lunch, and if she learned anything important. We do homework together because she can not read the instruction yet and I read the kindergarten section of her principals newsletter so I am aware of what topics they should be discussing.

One of the reasons I chose this tactic is children tend to think the world revolves around them. Knowing that Mommy and Daddy have a life that does not directly concide with her (although it does pay the bills) is important for her development.

Posted by: shdd | January 24, 2008 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Wow, I am glad the did nothing today is not unique. I thought I got that answer because my kid is mildly autistic. Evidently that is what they all say. I usually get an answer to "did you have a good day at school?" ans:School yes. Did you have a good lunch? ans-lunch, yes. What did you eat for lunch? ans-potatoes. What did you do today? ans-nothing.

Posted by: foamgnome | January 24, 2008 11:53 AM | Report abuse

My kids do "hot, cold, and what'd you learn?" every day at dinner. They would never tell us much-- did nothing, played with no one-- until we started this. "Hot" is what was your favorite thing that happened or thing you did. "Cold" is something bad that happened. For "what'd you learn," if they say nothing, then we come up with something to teach them, like how many days in a year or something about MLK or whatever. The other day, my four year old decided to add "warm" to the mix, which according to him is "if something weird happened (giggle, giggle)." On many days, they say there was no cold, so it's not like every day has to have some downer element, but I'm glad to here about the hard parts of their days to talk them through it.

Posted by: Karma2 | January 24, 2008 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Make that "I'm glad to hear about the hard parts..."

Posted by: Karma2 | January 24, 2008 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Karma2, we've been calling it "Bad/Good" for years, but what I've heard it called more recently I like much better: Thorns and Roses.

Posted by: Lot to Learn | January 24, 2008 12:56 PM | Report abuse

I used the "Did anyone get in trouble" line, but it's a little backfired on me, so that now my 11yo girls come home a little too thrilled when someone got into trouble. "We know you'll like to hear this, Mom," they say seriously.

With my 7yo BOY (all the difference!) I asked if he raised his hand in class. I ask if his teacher got exasperated with one of the many boys in the class, or I ask if he learned about clouds in science (which leads to what he really learned).

Posted by: Andrea | January 24, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Cherish every moment with your little ones and these very simple questions. Time will fly and your little one will be a teen walking in the door at 10PM the designated time of curfew- you will ask "how was the party" "who was there" "what did you do tonight"
Sometimes you will have happy lively conversation and sometime you will get a look that wills say- What do you know and why do you care........... Its give and take during those times- you will miss your little one tucked in bed answering silly questions about who got in trouble today!

You will wait for them to arrive home and pray no one is in trouble.0)

Posted by: edra | January 25, 2008 8:37 AM | Report abuse

Funny how these questions are not only applied to young kids, but to adults as well. My then gf now wife, used to get upset with my answers because she shares many "cool" things happens to her daily life, but I have none to say.
- what did you do today?
- working.
- anything happened at work?
- no, nothing happened at work.
- how's work?
- boring.
- anything you want to share?
- no, not really.

Posted by: BigOldBoy | January 29, 2008 10:36 AM | Report abuse

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