Speech & Language, Therapy Activities

Getting Children with Down syndrome to Answer Questions: Part I Asking the right questions

Could you do a post on how to get a child to answer questions?

Here it is! And I have so much info on this topic I’m making it a series of posts. I commented in an earlier post that many children with Down syndrome have difficulty forming questions. Often they will use one word to make a statement that listeners interpret as a question or request. For instance Jane says, “Milk?” and her mom responds, “Oh! You want milk!”

Flash-forward 5 minutes. Mom, “Do you want goldfish?” Jane grunts. “Do you want Cheerios?” Jane grunts. (Now repeat with 3 more items) Exasperated Mom – “What do you want?!” You get the picture. But before we actually get to an answer, we need to ask the right kinds of questions.

  • Ask questions your child can understand
  • Ask questions your child can answer
  • Ask questions around your child’s interests
  • Use questions to get a pre-talker’s attention

(adapted from Conklin, Pepper, Weitzman, and McDade, 2007 It Takes Two To Talk)

Questions, unlike comments, require an answer – a specific answer. Sometimes a child wants something totally different from the options given. They could be trying to talk about something entirely different from what we think. Comments allow a child to engage with you about their interests at their communication level. The pressure to provide the “right” answer is removed.

“So are you telling me questions are BAD?”

No, they are not bad. But they aren’t the only way to get a child to talk – I’ll save the post on ‘commenting’ for another day. Questions are like a mountain looming large in front of the early talker. The easiest questions are choices, “Do you want water or milk?” You would ask this question if a. Your child is thirsty and b. Your child can communicate an answer for both choices. This can be spoken, sign, point, reach, or eye gaze. Always affirm the answer when you hand the item over, “Here’s your milk.” 

The next step up leads us to yes/no questions. These can be very easy – “Do you want milk?” or more difficult, “Does Charlie have a sister?” Inconsistent responses are very common while children are learning to master yes/no. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a visual like this: Yes No Choice Board

Continue up the mountain side asking questions and arrive at the ever popular “wh” series. In order from easiest to most difficult they are what, where, who, when, and why. Reach the summit and you will have “how,” the ultimate in question difficulty!

What – Work on what questions during play with objects first before you ask something open-ended like, “What do you want?” For instance, “What does the cow say?” while playing with a farm.

Where – Start early playing “Where’s Daddy?” … “There he is!” Or hide a special toy and have your child find it. “Where was the ball Sam?” (Sam points) “Right!” Under the couch!”

Who – Take pictures of your family to create a “Who loves me?” book. Have family member’s pose in silly ways for even more fun and ask, “Who is hiding in the tree? (child points) Uncle Matt!”

When – Read opposite books. Talk about routines you do at home and ask questions – “When do we go to bed?” Oliver says, “Ni-ni.” Dad, “Night, night. We go to bed at night. Very good!”

How – Let your child help you do something simple like picking up toys. Turn a basket upside down and stack the toys incorrectly on top. Then say, “Silly Mommy. I forgot how to put the toys away. Will you show me?” Then ask, “Meg, how did you do that?” Meg, “Go in Mommy.” Mom, “Oh! They go in! I’m so silly… I put them on top.”

Children don’t like to be wrong. Frankly, who does? They would rather give you a wrong answer or no answer at all than be incorrect. It can be incredibly frustrating to be told, “Try again,” “Almost,” “No” when trying to answer questions.

I have my own set of “rules” when using questions with children in therapy.

  1. Set the child up for success by asking questions that are on target for their developmental level.
  2. Use questions purposefully. Don’t quiz. Children pick up on quizzing quickly and shut down even faster. Instead, use questions creatively to improve interaction and early conversation.  
  3. Do not withhold something if speech isn’t used. This is especially true as speech is emerging. Accept other forms of communication (sign, point, or reach) and offer lots of praise when speech is attempted. This will boost confidence to answer when you ask more questions later.

Remember, the goal is to have a child who answers accurately and feels secure communicating with words and/or signs/gestures. 

My next post: Getting Children with Down syndrome to Answer Questions Part II – Getting an answer without saying a word!


6 thoughts on “Getting Children with Down syndrome to Answer Questions: Part I Asking the right questions”

  1. This blog has useful advice for how to better communicate with children that have Down’s syndrome. Thank you for sharing it!

  2. This post was very true as I have seen in my life. I am about to adopt a child at the age of two and he is doing all of the things that was mentioned in this post. You really have to be patient and communicate a lot with a child to understand what they want. One or two word answers are essential however for his communication now in his life. They’ll grow and mature, but until then, you have to remember that one day long ago you were the exact same.

  3. JENN!!
    HI! So good to see you are doing well. Been following your blog for a little while and I love it (almost as much as I loved working with you :)) anyway. I am teaching an Exceptional Child class, we are talking about Communication Disorders and I particularly loved this post about asking questions. SO I am sending them all here to check it out. Thanks for continuing to be a resource for me!

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