I can’t remember where I first read the advice to not ask students why they did something after observing negative behavior. I also don’t remember the rationale behind it. But the advice has stuck with me, and I do believe it’s sound. Asking “why” usually ramps up a confrontation; it’s rarely seen as genuine and rarely yields useful information.

And yet, the irony is that understanding why the behavior is occurring is just about the most important thing we need to do. In fact, it’s almost impossible to move forward if we don’t understand the why.

So what gives?

Here’s Ross Greene on “good” and “bad” W questions from Lost and Found:

Drilling Strategy 2–Ask “W questions” (who, what, or where/when)

These questions are a good way to demonstrate that you’re really listening and need additional information. Examples: “Who’s been giving you a hard time on the school bus?” “What’s making it hard for you to complete your science homework?” “Where/when is Kyle teasing you?” Remember, drilling is about gathering information, and “W questions” are a straightforward way to do so. Notice that there’s another W question–Why?–that your should not be asking very often; that question often elicits the kid’s theory, and quite possible one that the child inherited from an adult.

Greene advocates using the construction “I noticed ________. What’s up?” This construction is far more likely to deescalate a confrontation than a demanding “Why?” But isn’t this kind of a cosmetic or semantical difference?

Maybe not. Using “I noticed ____. What’s up?” removes the expectation that a student be able to immediately explain their maladaptive behavior (they often or usually can’t) and implies that the behavior may be part of a larger context of events. It avoids the implication that the behavior was a conscious choice to do something bad. It’s an invitation to problem solving.

It’s strange, though: historically, when we demand to know why, we are usually more interested in a show of contrition and perhaps even a bit of shaming/retribution. And yet, it’s actually more directly related to the information we’re looking for than just asking “what’s up?”

So, not asking why makes it more likely that we’ll understand why. (If you’re interested in more about how minor changes in language can make a huge difference in adult-student interactions, definitely check out Faber’s How to Talk So Kids Can Learn and Johnston’s Choice Words.)

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