Susan Menkes on Constructing Developmentally Sensitive Questions

My name is Susan Menkes, and I’m an Applied Developmental Psychology doctoral student at Claremont Graduate University (CGU) and received my Masters in Evaluation from CGU, as well.  My work has focused on applying developmental research to understand effective interview strategies with younger children when evaluating programs serving children and youth.  Below are some tips on how to construct developmentally sensitive questions to increase children’s comprehension and subsequent responses:

Hot Tip: Wh-Questions: Particular question formats, such as wh-question words, are understood before others; words such as, what, which, where, and who are easier to understand than how, when, and why. Understanding which question format is easiest for young children to comprehend is critical to constructing effective questions to elicit the most descriptive output from children.

Hot Tip: Negative Phrases: When trying to elicit evaluative feedback from children, an interviewer may need to phrase the question with a negative (What do you not like about this program/service?).  However, re-phrasing the question to incorporate a semantic negative that is not syntactically negative (What can be done to make this program/service better?), can be useful in eliciting more descriptive detail compared to questions that are syntactically negative.

Hot Tip: Linguistic Complexity: Children may find it particularly difficult to understand linguistically complex questions; simply constructed questions containing one verb are easier for children to comprehend (e.g., ”What do you like to play with your friends when you are outside?” versus “What do you like to play outside with your friends?”). Additional nuances in the basic syntactic words used, even in simple questions, can impact children’s comprehension.

  • Pronouns and passive constructions can decrease comprehension.
  • Understanding person pronouns (e.g., I, you, and he/she) is difficult for young children; third person pronouns are typically learned later than first and second person forms.
  • Passive constructions (e.g., The rabbit is following the cat) are more difficult to comprehend than active constructions (e.g., The rabbit follows the cat).

While including young children throughout the evaluation may not be feasible, they certainly can provide valuable feedback to program managers related to the strengths, weaknesses, or suggested improvements in a program. To maximize the amount of descriptive output children provide to questions, it is critical to construct developmentally sensitive questions that young children can comprehend.

This contribution is from the aea365 Daily Tips blog, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. Please consider contributing – send a note of interest to

2 thoughts on “Susan Menkes on Constructing Developmentally Sensitive Questions”

  1. Pingback: Ed Eval Week: Silvana Bialosiewicz on Tips for Collecting Valid and Reliable Data from Children · AEA365

  2. Thanks for this, Susie!

    A question: What do you think is the youngest age you can get enough reliable sense out of a child about whether a program or approach *helped them* do something better?

    Is there an age where some sort of conceptual understanding of causation kicks in and you can ask them about that directly, as opposed to simply asking where they are at on a particular outcome?

    Hope this makes sense!

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