Think about how many times you ask children yes/no questions – Do you want cereal for breakfast? Do you want to play outside? Are you wearing your purple shirt? You probably lost count! Asking yes/no questions is very common, especially when communicating with young children.
Learning to indicate yes and no is something that neurotypical children pick up spontaneously as they grow. Typically, around 17 months, children start to understand that certain questions require a yes/no response. For example, when a 17-month old hears the question, “Do you want cereal?”, they know that they need to respond with either yes or no. Around 24 months, children become more accurate in their ability to answer yes/no questions about things in their immediate environment. For example, a 24-month old will be able to accurately respond to the question, “Is this your coat?” while looking at their coat.
However, children with communication challenges often need more support in understanding when a yes/no response is required. For example, it would not be appropriate to say yes when asked, “Who is that?” Furthermore, nonspeaking children will need support in learning how to indicate yes and no using a method other than speaking.
All Yes/No Questions Are Not Created Equal
Just because you ask your child a yes/no question does not mean it’s easy to answer. Consider the following aspects of a yes/no question:
Children first learn to answer yes/no questions related to wants, needs, preferences, etc. For these types of yes/no questions, the child is accepting or rejecting an object or activity that has been offered. Think of questions such as “Do you want to read Brown Bear?” and “Do you want to blow bubbles?”
Next, children learn to answer yes/no questions related to information, concepts, facts, etc. Think of questions such as “Is this your coat?” and “Is this a lion?”
Let’s pretend that you ask your child, “Is this your coat?” while holding up the child’s coat. The child hears the question form and knows that a yes/no response is required. The child is also looking at their coat and knows that it is their coat because their coat is purple. The child answers yes. This is an example of a contextualized yes/no question.
Now, let’s pretend that you ask your child, “Does a bird swim?” The child hears the question form and knows that a yes/no response is required, but also must visualize a bird in their imagination. When they picture a bird in their imagination, they see it flying, NOT swimming and so they answer no. This is an example of a decontextualized yes/no question.
Can you see how both information-based yes/no questions were similar, but that the second one was more difficult because it required the child to think about something that was not present in their immediate environment?
It is much easier for children to think about concrete words, such as cat, bike, and book as opposed to abstract words such as big/small, many/few, happy/sad, good/bad, fair, strange, etc. Concrete words tend to be nouns whereas abstract words tend to be adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and prepositions.
What is tricky about abstract words is that there are no fixed rules! What might seem fair to one person seems unfair to another. The ball that a child is holding is bigger than the one on the shelf, but smaller than the one outside.
Now that we’ve broken down what’s in a yes/no question, you can see why children have trouble answering some yes/no questions, but not others.
A yes/no question about a concrete preference that is in the child’s immediate environment is much easier than a yes/no question about something abstract.
Example: “Do you want to play bubbles?” [while holding up bubbles]
- Child loves bubbles
- Child is looking at bubble container
- Bubbles are a noun
Example: “Was that a good choice?” [question is asking when picking child up from daycare and hearing about how the child pushed a peer]
- Information-based question
- Child has to remember the event
- The child’s decision-making and social-emotional development may not be mature enough to determine whether or not it was a good choice
How else can we think about yes/no questions? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!
Choi, S. (1991). Children’s answers to yes-no questions A developmental study in English, French, and Korean. Developmental Psychology, 27, 407–420. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1618.104.22.1687
Okanda, M., & Itakura, S. (2010). Do bilingual children exhibit a yes bias to yes-no questions?: Relationship between children’s yes bias and verbal ability. The International Journal of Bilingualism, 16, 1–9.