Interviewing Children - pg. 4

Developmental Assessment

At the beginning of the interview, it is important for you to assess the child's developmental level and to frame the interview so that age-appropriate interview techniques are used. It is important not to confuse chronological age with normal developmental stages. A child's developmental age may not match what may be expected for the child's chronological age. You need to integrate your knowledge of child development with your knowledge of the child's sense of time, temperament, and language abilities. Some of this information may be obtained through interviews with the parents, consultations with school teachers, or your own observations. Once you have a sense of the child, it becomes easier to understand the child's thinking. What the child says and does can best be interpreted by understanding the child's developing cognitive abilities and emotional state of mind.

When formulating questions to ask a child, it is important that the questions be appropriate for the child's developmental level. The following developmental stages address some of the developmental considerations which can be useful in planning an interview with a child.


Learning to trust is a primary task for infants. This task is achieved differently by each infant, depending on the infant's temperament, experience with caretakers, and level of security. There are several research studies that address differences in infants. The Chess/Thomas study found that a high percentage of infants fell into three major types (within normal range):

  1. "easy" infants: have regular feeding/sleeping habits, a positive affect, and cry with reason most of the time.
  2. "slow to warm-up" infants: take a while to adapt to new situations and do not adjust as easily to changes, but are able to adjust.
  3. "difficult" infants: irritable, cry a lot, no regular patterns, no clear signals as to what they need, may get angry easily, may seem demanding, and may have skin sensitivities.

Toddlers At this age, children begin to test out the world, asserting their will power to try and be autonomous. Yet, toddlers still need the security that they can hold on when they don't want to let go. It is more difficult to structure play with this age group. Some children may have difficulty leaving their parent and may need a parent in the interview room with them. Their need for security should be respected.

Preschool and Early School

By using fantasy, children can "mimic" other people and events in their lives. They are able to distance themselves from their parents in order to pursue their own explorations, but cannot yet think logically about certain situations. Preschool children reason better when in familiar contexts that are known to them. They perform well on memory tasks that depend on recognition, but perform poorly on tasks that require deliberate recall. Young children are more likely to use magical thinking or to give inaccurate information when they do not know much about what they are being asked, feel confused, or want to avoid telling what they do know. The child may also tell the adults only what they believe the adults wish to hear.

Early School

At this age, children are moving towards mastery and competence, and need to create and compete. This age is more receptive to games or building things. They are developing their self-esteem and use their peers to measure their skills and worth. These children have better recall memory than preschoolers and logical thinking is more evident. They are able to look at problems and consider varied solutions and alternatives.

These children need to feel a sense of control over what they will be doing in the interview and how they might play out their thoughts or feelings. Sometimes children will play out a situation that they are trying to master. Play and storytelling can emerge from their drawings or building models.

Middle School

The developmental tasks for this group are similar to early school age. However, their feelings of competence are more evident as they move towards developing a stronger sense of self. Their logical thinking is advanced, and they enjoy being challenged. Often, however, they see the world from a good/bad dichotomy, and fairness becomes an issue of importance.


Teens are struggling to formulate their own identity, and attempt to be less connected to their parents and more independent than during their middle school years. Parental separation can interfere with this process. As they move from childhood to adulthood, teenagers continue to need some structure within flexible boundaries; this is a time when clarification of their own values is important. Teens have the cognitive abilities to understand the realities of their life situation.

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