“Did you have a good day?”

It isn’t always the innocent question it sounds like.

Most of the time when we ask people, “How was your day?” we are asking about how they feel about their day, not about the choices they made that were good or bad.  For instance, if they got mad at the vending machine and broke it trying to get their potato chips out they may express that they had a bad day because of their frustration and not getting what they want, not because they made the poor choice to damage property to get a bag of junk food.

Well, for children who have behaviors that are a result of self-regulation or mental health issues (such as anxiety, sensory processing, and ADHD), using “good” and “bad” can be tied to their already fragile self-esteem, and not in a good way. A child who can’t self-regulate knows what you’re really asking (“Were YOU good or bad today”). Your question often isn’t about how they feel, but how they behaved that day.

So, what’s wrong with that?

Say they did one thing that warranted a time out or being sent to the principal’s office. 15-30 minutes of a 7-hour school day. A small blip in their day. Was this a good day or a bad day? How are they supposed to answer your question? Should their whole day be defined by one mistake?

Even more should they be defined by the mistakes they make? If this brief experience makes it a bad day does this mean they are a bad kid? If there is only focus on that small piece of their day when they lost control what are we teaching them about themselves? And if they made one bad judgment call earlier in the day then the day is already bad, so why both trying to be “good”? How unfair to put them in that position.

Using good and bad to define their behavior runs the risk of defining them as good or bad (and we know that if they have a rough day because of their behavior that they are probably already defined as the “bad” kid by those around them).

I know an adult who has dyslexia. He is an amazing artist and in high school he put nearly no effort in to get an A in art. Math, however, was a real struggle. One quarter he decided that he was going to work really hard for a better grade in math and his art grade went down as a result. His dad was so focused on the drop in his art grade that he didn’t even acknowledge the improvement in his math grade. Do you think he tried this hard again in math? Of course not. What was the point? This isn’t any different when it comes to behavior.

Your child knows where he struggles. He knows what is hard for him. There should be consequences for negative behaviors, but if that is all you are focusing on, then you are doing a disservice to your child.

So, what can you say instead?

Ask how they felt about their day.

Ask, what positive choices and things they did that day.

Ask what was something good or bad that happened to them that day.

Ask what made them smile that day.

If you are concerned with your child’s behavior, focus on that by being specific, not a general “good or bad.”

Work with your child to focus on those areas of need. Have them help you make a list of goals for that day, week, or month.

For instance,

I will raise my hand to get my teacher’s attention.

I will use a quiet voice at school.

I will use words and not hit when I am mad.

I will ask to take a break if I get frustrated.

Don’t make this an all-inclusive list or you’re asking too much. Pick 2-4 things and ask about these. Give praise for the ones they did right that day. Put a sticker by them.

Empower them by letting them help make goals and to take pride when they have made steps to reach them. Download our free child interview and goal setting form with instructions here: Child Goal Setting Form

And keep in mind that most of the time when children are not doing as expected at school that they are anxious, frustrated, embarrassed, overwhelmed, etc., and are not intentionally wanting to be bad. We’ll get more into this in another post, though.