Asking Powerful Questions: How To Help Your Kids Become Independent And Productive

While this month marks spring break for many of our students across the area, for us at Educational Connections, it marks our 23rd year in business. In 1998, I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined that we’d have such a positive impact on our students. From bright but disorganized kids to the child who wants to perform at a higher level, and everything in between – we are committed to overcoming every child’s challenges. My team and I are forever grateful for our families who chose to be a part of this journey with us and have become a member of our Educational Connections family.

Over the years, my tutors and I have homed in on many strategies to help kids in school, no matter the area. In math, we’ve taught tricks to learn the multiplication tables and games to master the Pythagorean Theorem. For our reluctant writers, we’ve developed color-coded graphic organizers and used cool software like Rev. But I can tell you from my many years of experience, there is no better strategy to help kids develop self-awareness, responsibility, and independence than ‘powerful questions.’

Powerful questions are prompts we use to ask kids how they might best tackle some of the common yet tricky obstacles they encounter. These types of questions get kids to buy in and engage far more than telling them what to do.

Now let’s take a step back for a moment. Because you’re here, we can already tell you’re committed to helping your child improve their attitude towards school, homework and study habits, and academic performance. Chances are you also picked up some ideas along the way on how you may help them get organized, overcome procrastination, or study smarter. While these ideas may morph and grow with hybrid learning, the core strategies remain the same.

So, what’s the real problem?

You, as “Mom” or “Dad,” may know what to do, but your son or daughter may have other ideas…

Anyone who’s tried to feed broccoli to a toddler, or get a teenager to stop watching YouTube videos and do their math homework, knows that no matter how much “sense” it makes, or how much logic is involved, there’s not much arguing with “I don’t want to do it that way.”

And this couldn’t be more true when it comes to schoolwork. Unless our kids are ready and willing to make changes to their homework and study habits, no matter how hard you push, nothing meaningful is going to improve until they take it upon themselves to do those things independently.

So how do we do that?

This is where Powerful Questions come in.

What are Powerful Questions?

Now looking back, Socrates figured this out loooong before any of us did:

Asking questions to spark thinking is far more effective than “telling” someone what they need to do.

Apply that idea to your kids and their approach towards homework and studying, and you find that if you can frame your questions in the right way, you’ll actually facilitate the self-awareness, empowerment, and independence they need to become self-starters and take on the behaviors you’ve been encouraging them to.

But the way these questions are framed is a key point. Here’s an example of a typical conversation you might have with your child:

Mom: “Jimmy, do you have homework today?”
Jimmy: “Yeah.”
Mom: “Well, you better start it now because you have soccer at 6:00 and I don’t want you staying up late again tonight because you started your work too late!”
Jimmy: “Ugghhhhggg…”

The problem here may seem like it’s as simple as: Jimmy just doesn’t feel like doing his homework.

But it actually starts off on the wrong foot because the question Mom asked is a non-starter: it doesn’t get Jimmy thinking about the things he needs to do to get started on his homework.

This is what we refer to as a Yes/No/Why Question, and Powerful Questions are the opposite. They are instead:

  • Open-ended and non-judgmental
  • Not intended to give advice or to solve the problem for the student
  • Intended to get them thinking in the right direction that will provide a much higher chance of a solution they come to themselves

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of some common Yes/No/Why Questions you might naturally ask, and some powerful alternatives you could replace them with to encourage independent thinking.

Yes/No/Why Questions: Powerful Questions:

Do you have homework?

What are your priorities today?

Did you study for that science test?

What’s the one thing you might do to study for your science test?

Are you ready for your big English exam?

On a scale of 1-10, how prepared do you feel for the English exam?

Why didn’t you study?

Going forward, what’s the one thing you might do differently?

Why didn’t you turn that in?

Did something get in your way of getting that assignment done?

And here’s the process to go through when you do go to re-frame that conversation:

  1. Ask an initial powerful question to spark thinking
  2. Listen to responses without passing judgment
  3. Restate or paraphrase what the student is saying
  4. Give positive acknowledgments along the way

Okay so now with that in mind, let’s reframe our conversation with Jimmy using Powerful Questions instead:

Mom: “Jimmy, what are your priorities today for homework?”
Jimmy: “I have to science test tomorrow and some math homework.”
Mom: “Oh, okay, a science test and math homework. What might you do first?”
Jimmy: “Probably study for science.”
Mom: “Okay, that sounds like a good plan to study for science first. I can tell you want to get that out of the way. Great idea. How will you know you’re ready for the test?”
Jimmy: “I’m going to work through the study guide again and practice the vocab words on Quizlet.”
Mom: “Sounds like you have a good plan. You’re going to work through the study guide and Quizlet before soccer. Let’s leave by 5:30. Sound okay?”

Now, let’s not pretend that this is how your conversation will go the first time you try this.

More likely you may encounter:

Mom: “Jimmy, what are your priorities today for homework?”
Jimmy: “Huh??”

Or…

Mom: “Jimmy, what are your priorities today for homework?”
Jimmy: “I don’t think I have any…” as you stand there with his math assignment in your hand.

So if this happens don’t get discouraged, this process takes some getting used to on both sides. The important thing is to keep trying, and to gently lead and prod them in the right direction, trying your best not to outright tell them what they need to do.

Why Powerful Questions work

Powerful questions work well with kids, even the resistant ones, for two reasons:

First: By asking the right questions, you’re not telling kids what to do

And no child (or adult for that matter) likes to be told what to do. It puts people on the defensive… and when they’re on the defensive, they’re far less likely to engage in conversation.

When kids feel defensive or judged, they can begin to shut down. However, when you ask open-ended questions more out of curiosity, kids are much more likely to listen and to talk to you.

Second: They foster executive functioning skills (EF)

When it comes to schoolwork, EF skills have to do with getting started (being a self-starter), focusing well enough to get the work done, and then moving on to the next assignment. The problem is that at times, parents can end up being the Homework Police, by nagging, prodding, and negotiating to get their kids to do three things: get started, focus and finish.

By asking the right questions, you’re encouraging kids to think ahead about how they might get started on their own, what’s important to get done, and how they’ll go about doing it.

For many years, our executive function coaches have found that this approach works incredibly well for all kids, even during online or hybrid school, and it can work in your home, too.

So give it a shot!

And feel free to reach out to us at any time if you have questions about using this approach to help your child improve. We’d be happy to help.