When I was teaching preschool, I was often asked by parents how to get some information out of their children about their day. Most of the time, when asked, “What did you do today?” parents would get one of two answers: “I played” or “Nothing.”
And, no matter how much they pumped for more information, the well was dry. My response would be, then, “You need to change the way you ask them.”
Getting a preschooler to recall his day requires knowing a little bit about where he is cognitively. There are several areas of his thinking that are developing at this time. His recognition memory is really quite good, meaning if he has some visual cues, he can remember and talk about something that has happened recently. I say recently, because his working or short-term memory is a bit limited at this point and usually only events that are striking or personally meaningful will be kept for a longer term. This extended, “autobiographical memory” is why he can remember every detail and tell everyone he meets about what happened the day Mommy backed into the garage door… but remembers very little about what happened in school today.
In addition, the preschooler’s recall, or ability to remember something without any supports or cues, is not very good at all. So, knowing these things, how can we best support him?
1. Provide sensory reminders. These would be little cues that give his pre-operational mind what it needs. As a teacher, we can provide a table outside the classroom with artifacts from the day’s activities… a box of the items we used for our collages, some photos of us finger painting, a bottle of bubble solution and a wand that we used outside after snack. Parents can use these things as conversation-starters, to encourage their children to open up and talk about their school day.
2. Ask questions the right way. Most of the time, parents will use a technique known as “repetitive prompting”… asking a very broad and generalized question, such as “What did you do at school today?” And, when the child fails to produce the expected, substantive answer, they will simply ask again and again the same way. This typically goes nowhere. But, if you think about it, the answer he gives makes perfect sense in the child’s mind. A generic question deserves a generic answer. School today? “I played.”
Now, if the parent uses a different approach- something called “elaborative prompting,” there will usually be a much better result. If the child is asked some specific questions about a specific activity, he can focus in on it, memories are triggered, and Mom gets some good information!
“When you had Sharing Time today, what did Michael bring to show everyone?”
“Did you have milk at snack today? What else did you have?”
Teachers can help parents with this technique by posting some “trigger questions” outside the door.
”Ask me about the caterpillars we held today- what they looked like and how they felt in my hand.”
“Ask me about the story Mrs. Reynolds read to us today and the funny clothes she was wearing.”
Questions like these are bound to spark enough information to last the whole car ride home. And, if this is done on a regular basis, the child’s memory and language skills will get a boost, as well.