October 01, 2014

Questioning School-Aged Children

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

To mark the third edition of Anne Graffam Walker’s Handbook on Questioning Children, CLP will be excerpting portions of it over the next year. We have too many children appearing in our courts, foster care, and child protection systems: abused, neglected, delinquent, disabled and immigrant.  These words are as true now as when they were written in the first edition 15 years ago:

“Even very young children can tell us what they know if we ask them the right questions in the right way.”

You will probably not be questioning children as young as two and three very often. But as children enter our court system in ever-increasing numbers, you will be seeing more and more preschool and school-age children, and more adolescents. The Handbook focuses primarily on the under-10 group.

CLP covered characteristics of preschoolers in the June 2014 issue. Up next are characteristics of school-age children and adolescents.  Keep in mind that they are not meant to represent weaknesses in children’s ability to process adult language, but to point to the kind of questioning that builds on children’s strengths in telling us what we need to know.

School Age, roughly 7-10:

  • Still may have difficulty handling abstract concepts.

  • Still have problems processing complex questions and verb phrases that express, for instance, the future as seen from a perspective in the past (e.g., “Were you to have been taken to school that day?”) 

  • Still make errors with passives, the difference between “ask” and “tell,” and with pronoun reference.

  • Are still easily confused by complex negation. Multiple negatives such as “You don’t deny you did it, do you?” will probably go right over their heads.

  • Are still not mature at organizing in an adult-satisfactory way the details of narratives.

  • Are still unequipped to deal with adult insincerity such as sarcasm, irony, and so on.

  • May still believe that adults in general speak the truth.

Adolescents, roughly 11-18:

  • May or may not have acquired adult narrative skills.

  • Don’t understand time as both a historical concept (one that goes on and on without them) and a day-to-day concept that affects their lives. For most adolescents, what concerns them is the here-and-now.

  • Still have difficulty with complex negation. Questions that are packed with negatives, such as “It’s not untrue that you forgot, is it?” are hard to decipher. This problem continues on into adulthood for most of us.

  • Are often confused by linguistic ambiguity such as is found in newspaper headlines, some ads, metaphors, idioms, proverbs, and jokes.

  • Are likely to lose track of long, complex questions.

  • Are reluctant to ask for clarification of a question or acknowledge that they don’t understand.

  • A lot of teens, particularly the under-educated, under-parented, unattached (and developmentally delayed) children remain stuck in the School Age stage above.

Although this book is devoted primarily to alerting questioners of young children to stages of language and cognitive development that can create misunderstandings, a note is in order here about the status of adolescents in our courts. Their linguistic development is usually complete, but that fact often does not work in their favor. Research shows adolescent brains, particularly the prefrontal cortex, are not completely developed until well into the mid-20s. 

 Adults have a higher expectation of adolescents’ abilities to understand the convoluted language typical of court proceedings, and improbable responses to questions such as “How many times did it happen?” A: “400,” are more likely to be heard as lies than as metaphors for “a lot of times.” Adolescents are, in fact, in some ways at greater risk than young children of misjudgment, and we would do well to keep that in mind.

Some Suggestions for Your Questions

Suggestions for simplified questioning that will get more accurate answers from all three age groups:

  • DO use simple, common, everyday English words and phrases. “attorney,” “court,” “deny,” “subsequent,” “take the witness stand,” “at that point in time” and the like do not fall into that category.

  • DO put names and places back in where pronouns once lived. Ask, “What did Albert say?” instead of “What did he say?” Ask, “Were there a lot of people in the kitchen?” instead of “Were there a lot of people there?”

  • DO stay away from negatives. Phrase your questions positively, whenever possible.

  • DO use questions and comments that keep the number of ideas in them to a minimum. The younger the child, the smaller the number.
    One main idea is good. 

  • DO start your questions and comments off with the main idea. “Did the bell ring when you were eating?” instead of, “When you were eating, did the bell ring?”

  • DO remember: This is a child. Children are not short adults. Try to listen to the proceedings with a child’s ears.  You might be surprised at what you hear.

The next excerpt will focus on linguistic principles to keep in mind when questioning children. 


Sneak Peek:

1. We do not question “children.”

We question one child at a time. Each child has a unique growth pattern, and his or her own family experience which shaped the learning of language. Therefore, the child you are questioning may or may not fit the general characteristics of the topic being discussed.  That is markedly true for children (or adults, for that matter) who have a developmental disability, come from a culture different from our own, or who have been maltreated. 


Can’t wait for the excerpt? Buy the Handbook on Questioning Children, 3rd ed. at http://apps.americanbar.org/abastore/ Product Code: 3490008. $30