Interviewing Children - pg. 5

Appropriate Questions

It is difficult to do an entire interview without asking any questions. It is more effective to use open-ended or indirect questions. Research shows that children provide more accurate information when they are freely narrating, rather than when they are being asked direct questions. Open-ended questions allow children to expand on their ideas and give us a better sense of their thinking. Asking children to describe their home, their parents, or what they enjoy doing, allows them the freedom to elaborate as they choose. Indirect questions provide a margin of safety for the child. If children are asked questions such as, "Some kids believe all boys should live with their Dads, what do you think?" or "Why would it be a good idea if the judge decided ...", then they have an opportunity to comment without feeling that they are directly revealing their choice. If a child avoids an issue, then it may be necessary to try another approach. You should encourage children to ask questions, and ask them to share whatever they would like about themselves or their family. Children enjoy having a sense of control over what they will be doing and saying.

When interviewing children, it is important to remember that what we observe may raise questions about the child and the child's life, but we must be cautious not to misinterpret their play or take their words literally. We do not want to reach a conclusion based on any one piece of information; it is best to use play to assist in formulating a hypothesis, which can then be further explored. Information that emerges in play needs to be corroborated by other sources, such as further observation of the child during play techniques, teacher consults, or parental, sibling, and other relative interviews. Observe the affective tone of the play and the context in which the affect occurs.

Below are age categories listed to give you an idea about how each age group may react.


Since we cannot "interview" infants you may try the following process.

Direct observation of the child.

Watch the child while playing, or generally relating to the parent, in order to gain a sense of the child's temperament. Observe the infant's development, and view the infant's reactions to a stranger (yourself). Note whether or not the baby makes eye contact (some are gaze avoidant). Ask yourself: What is this baby's affect? Is the baby dour? Does the baby show apathy? Does the baby seem comfortable with the parent? Is this a baby who could be happy with anyone?

Assessing the parent-child interaction.

It is important to note how the parent relates to the child. Note whether the parent appears to be calm, gentle, relaxed, and confident about parenting, or if the parent is anxious, easily frustrated, inattentive, indifferent, or detached. Note what the parent does with the baby and what the parent communicates to the child through looks, touches, and gestures. One diagnostic tool you might use is a colorful object (for example, a red unsharpened pencil) placed between you and the parent holding the child. Observe the child's and parent's responses. Does the baby move towards the object? Does the parent restrain the child, or move the object away or towards the child? After the observation, ask the parent for their view of the observation. Was this typical behavior for the child, or was it atypical (Has the child been sick? Did the child have a difficult night?).

This "interview" with the infant and parent will hopefully provide you with a sense of how secure this child feels, and whether or not the baby is wary, not very responsive, not very flexible, and, therefore, not very adaptable, to changing situations. You may also get a sense of whether the parent provides the child with appropriate stimuli, enhances the security of the child, and meets the child's needs.

2 to 5 Year Olds

With this age group, it often works best to simply have a table with play figures (small people and animals, small houses, cars, etc.) and invite the child to play.

This can be done with the child alone and then with each parent to see if certain themes emerge in the child's play or if these themes differ in each situation. Dialogue with the child needs to fit the child's developmental level. The following are some suggestions which have been found to be effective:

  1. When possible, use short and simple sentences that incorporate the child's terms. If you are unfamiliar with the child's terms, ask the child: "What do you call _?" or "Tell me about ..."
  2. Use names rather then pronouns (for example, "Uncle Sam", rather than "he").
  3. Rephrase a question that a child does not understand rather than repeating it (if you repeat the question the child may think a wrong answer was given the first time and change the answer).
  4. Avoid asking questions involving time.
  5. Although some 2 and 3 year olds may not have very good verbal skills, recreating a situation or event often helps to stimulate their memory. The following are examples of structured play that can bring forth important information about who is central to the child's life as well as the child's feelings about a particular person.
Tea Parties

Tea parties can create an opportunity to see who children invite or don't invite. The child can be asked to pick a stuffed animal to represent each invitee. Ask the child to pick an animal who reminds the child of that person. Place the animal at the "tea party," and then have the child continue with the play. If the child does not include the parents, then you may ask if they would like to do so. You may also be invited to have tea and then will have an opportunity to see how the child relates to new people.

Play Figures

Young children can often be engaged in doll house play and play with animals (stuffed or puppets) where specific situations can be played out. Even if they are not very verbal, the children can be asked to place the play figure where they think they belong. Children enjoy putting play figures into cars or airplanes and then going places. These scenes can be suggested such as, "Who will go in the car? or Where will you go?" The child can be asked questions about the car ride such as, "What is fun about driving or going in the car with Mom/Dad?"

I Feel Game

This game is very non-threatening and familiar to some children, so they feel comfortable playing. It may pave the way for exploring the child's feelings. Use a paper bag with several objects in it, such as a piece of yarn, an eraser, a rock, a pencil with a sharp point, or a small ball, etc. Invite the child to feel one object and describe to you what it's like: "Is it small, big, soft, hard, long, short?" After pulling all the objects out of the bag, invite the child to draw, or help draw, some faces that show how the child feels, for example a sad or happy face (some will draw other faces).

Each face needs to be on a separate piece of paper near the child. Next, show the child appropriate pictures (cut out of magazines) and ask how the child would feel if what was happening in the picture happened to them. Or, ask the child, "Show me the face that shows how you feel when ____ happens." (Describe an event that has happened or might have happened to the child.) Mix difficult happenings with safe ones ("How do you feel when you get to sleep with Mom?" or "When you go to the park to play?"). It helps to prepare your questions in advance.

Book Reading

Read to the child an appropriate book about separation, and as you are reading ask, "Did this happen in your family?" "Do you ever feel like this?" "What did you do when your Mom/Dad _____ ?"

Telephone Gamer

Two telephones are needed or other items that can serve as objects to represent telephones (for example, two blocks). Different make-believe phone calls are presented to the child and you can observe how the child handles each call.

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