Open-ended Questions, a Powerful Tool to Serve the Whole Child

As out of school time professionals, you have opportunities to get to know kids on a level that school day staff and other providers do not. You get to see kids in some of their toughest transitions but also get to see them in their natural states, playing and exploring in ways that offer you deeper insights into their world. You notice when things are off - like when a child is tired or hungrier than usual. And you build relationships with their caregivers, opening up conversations with them as they pick up kids at the end of the day, and welcome them into your space.

All of this puts you in a unique position to serve the whole child and whole family and to tap into the community to provide kids and families much needed supports. Despite this unique opportunity to work with and support families however, it can be overwhelming to think about where to start. It is not always easy to initiate a conversation when you are worried about someone and you do not want to offend or make premature assumptions. In this blog post, we will explore the convenience and power of the open-ended question as a tool to start conversations and to dig deeper. 

What is an open-ended question?

The concept is simple, as the name implies, but its power can be overlooked, and it is worth taking a closer look. An open-ended question is one that invites a longer and more detailed response versus a closed-ended question that typically results in only a “yes” or “no” answer. Open-ended questions have the potential to evoke clarity or even bring about discovery or insight.

Think about this common experience:

A program participant walks into programming, and you ask, “how was your day?” Most kids say “good”, but you are left in the dark. Unless their nonverbals completely give things away, you likely have no more information than before you asked. In addition to the lack of useful information in response to your question, you also missed an opportunity to really connect with this participant.

A simple edit on this question that is open-ended and invites a conversation is, “tell me about your day.” Now this is an opportunity that opens the door for any number of responses. It also gives you many more opportunities to ask follow-up questions that can help you connect further with that participant.

  • What did that experience mean to you?
  • What did you learn from that activity today?
  • What made that hard or what do you think got in the way?
  • What is something you want to remember from today? 

Why are open-ended questions so powerful?

When we intentionally ask children or their caregivers open-ended questions, we demonstrate - just in the asking - that we truly want to hear their thoughts, ideas, viewpoints, and feelings. In one sentence, we create a safe space for their story to be told, and fully heard. This dynamic is reassuring and inviting. It makes space for a thoughtful response and encourages children and their caregivers to reflect on their experiences and open up about any needs they might have. Being asked an open-ended question allows them to feel seen and heard.

In this sense, the benefits are twofold: we get better, more accurate information about what a family might need and how to help; we also strengthen our relationship through this process of gathering information. There are times where closed-ended questions are appropriate and when you simply need to get concrete answers. Open-ended questions should be used when we want more information from a child or caregiver in order to serve the whole child and family system vs just focusing on the perceived problem.

What are some more examples of open-ended questions?

  • When you are feeling down, what cheers you up?
  • What will this weekend look like for you?
  • If you had a magic wand, what would you wish for?
  • What is your biggest dream?
  • Tell me about your trip to programming today.
  • Tell me about the last time your family had a challenge and what you did.
  • Tell me about something that is going well at school or home. 

What are some other tips for creating intentional questions?

  • If you have a closed-ended question in mind, use that as a starting point and turn it in to an open-ended question. For example, if you are worried that a program participant did not eat over the weekend, take your “did you eat this past weekend question” and turn it into “tell me about what you ate this weekend.” 
  • Don’t stack your questions - keep things simple. Ask one question at a time by slowing down and thinking about what information you hope to gather and how best to get there. You can even tell the other person that you have a question, and you just need a moment to think about the best way to ask it. 
  • If you do use a closed-ended question, no big deal. You can simply follow up with an open-ended question. 
  • Actively listen to the response to strengthen the dynamic of safety you are creating and to encourage further sharing. This means you not only listen to the words being said but the potential underlying meaning and to the nonverbal messages. If someone raises their voice and swears, calmly reflect that emotion back to them and let them elaborate. 

As you head into programming, try this out. Pick a child who you need to check in with and ask them an open-ended question. Think about what information you want to get out of the conversation and how this question might help. You may just find that by incorporating this one simple practice you end up with a more complete picture of the whole child.


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