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"What Did You Do at Preschool Today?" "Nothing."

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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CanWE Talk

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.

talking boy

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?”

Girl talking to parents

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.

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Debra Pierce is professor of Early Childhood Education at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Ivy Tech is the nation's largest singly accredited statewide community college systems, serving nearly 200,000 students annually.

Her professional background has always involved children, over the past 40 years, having been a primary grades teacher in the Chicago Public School system, a teacher of 3 and 4 year-olds in a NAEYC accredited preschool for 15 years, and a certified Parent Educator for the National Parents as Teachers Program.

Debra is a certified Professional Development Specialist for the Council for Professional Recognition. She has taught CDA courses to high school career/tech dual credit juniors and seniors in preparation for earning their CDA credentials. She also conducts CDA train-the-trainer events across the country and develops and teaches online CDA courses for several states, is a frequent presenter at national and state early childhood conferences, and is a Master Trainer for the states of Minnesota and Arizona. She was also awarded the NISOD Teaching Excellence Award by the University of Texas.

Debra is active in her community, supporting children's literacy and is on the board of directors of First Book in Indianapolis. Debra is a contributing author for Hamilton County Family Magazine and Indy's Child in Indianapolis.
She loves spending time with her two grandsons, Indy, who is 7 and Radley, 3.

Debra has spent the last 16 years dedicated to the success of those pursuing the CDA credential and is the author of The CDA Prep Guide: The Complete Review Manual for the Child Development Associate Credential, now in its third edition (Redleaf Press), the only publication of its kind. She hosts a website providing help and support to CDA candidates and those who train them at http://www.easycda.com
The comments and views expressed are not in collaboration or affiliation with The Council for Professional Recognition or Ivy Tech Community College.
Follow me on Twitter at /easycda

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