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5 Best Answers to a Child’s Questions to Encourage Executive Functioning Skills

5 Best Answers to Encourage Executive Functioning SkillsToday’s post is by a guest blogger, Paige Hays, OTR.  She is an occupational therapist who provides in-home, pediatric occupational therapy services in the south metro area of the Twin Cities, MN through Paige Hays, Therapy Services, LLC. She is a mother of 2 girls, avid DIYer, and a highly skilled and experienced OT. She specializes in working in pediatrics, with diverse expertise ranging from cognition and sensory issues to working with children with neuromuscular disabilities or complex medical needs.  Today she offers the 5 best answers to a child’s questions to encourage executive functioning skills.
Anyone who works with children knows that children ask A LOT of questions.  They ask because they want to learn things.  They ask because they already know things and just want to confirm it.  They ask to make conversation.  They ask to get attention.  And sometime they just ask (and ask, and ask, and then ask again).   The truth is that children are trying to talk to us, trying to engage with us, and trying to learn from us.  It is a teaching moment- don’t miss it!
Many of the children I work with as an occupational therapist struggle with executive functioning skills (such as children on the autism spectrum, children with learning disabilities and attention disorders, and children with developmental delays).  One of the best tools (and habits) I use as a therapist is that I rarely answer children’s questions directly.  Instead, I find that giving answers that encourage the child to think and respond are a great way to develop executive functioning skills and higher level thinking, such as:
  • making inferences
  • using logic and reasoning
  • problem solving
  • flexible thinking
  • making predictions
  • critical thinking and skepticism
  • social and conversation skills
5.  What do you think?
Example: Child: Why can’t I eat the playdoh? Adult: What do you think?
The quickest and easiest answer.  Often a great way to stop repetitive questioning when the child knows the answer and is just seeking attention or needs to confirm a rule or boundary (remember children learn through repetition, so confirming an answer they already know is an important part of learning to control one’s behavior and develop self-regulation skills).  I also find that for children with oppositional or defiant behavior patterns this is an approach to build shared control and promote compliance.  For children who struggle with social skills, this may be an attempt at engagement and by asking a question in return you can continue to work on the co-regulation skills needed for functional conversation skills.

4. How can we find out?  Who could we ask?  Where could we find that answer?

Example: Child: Why is the balance beam tippy today?  Adult: I’m not sure, how could we find out? (and how can with fix it?)
When there is actually an answer to be discovered, giving them clues about how they could find out on their own.  This is a great chance to provide a “just right challenge” for their cognitive skills by providing hints and clues (scaffolding) and leading them to discover an answer.  The process of discovery is a great time to work on the steps of problem-solving: initiation of action, making a plan, executing a plan, monitoring and self-correction of work, and task completion.

3. I don’t know, let’s make a guess together.

Example: Child: Why is the swing squeaking?  Adult: I don’t know, let’s look closely and make a guess together?
When there isn’t an answer or there is not an age-appropriate answer, it is ok to make a guess together (or a theory or hypothesis for older children).  This is a great time to focus on flexible thinking skills, especially for children who are very literal or think in absolutes (black and white thinking).  The cognitive skill of making a guess can be hard for children, but with a therapist role modeling for them it can stretch them more complex thinking skills (don’t be surprised if a child’s guess is completely wrong, being right or wrong isn’t the point!)

2. What could happen if you ____?  (Or, how would that make ____ feel?)

Example: Child: Can I wear my tutu in OT?  Adult: What might happen to a tutu while we swing or play with shaving cream today?  How would you feel if your tutu got dirty?
Children often ask “what if” or “can I” questions.  Rather than answer, let the child think about the reasoning behind the answer.  It is a great chance to make predictions about consequences of actions (a key part of developing self-regulation).  This is a great way to build social skills as well, focusing on theory of mind, social thinking, and emotional regulation skills.

1. Give an outrageous or silly answer and let them correct you.

Example: Child: Can I wash my hands?  Adult: Nope, this week at OT we are only washing our elbows and ears.
My favorite response is to give an answer that makes absolutely no sense.  Children love to correct adults and be “right,” and this gives a wonderful chance to have your child try to convince you through logic skills.  This also helps to build a healthy amount of skepticism (and critical thinking skills) that all children need.  This can be hard for children who are very literal or struggle with language skills, but can also present a great opportunity to build social skills, sense of humor, while promoting higher level thinking skills.
Here is more information about executive function by Paige Hays Therapy Services, LLC

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