This browser is not actively supported anymore. For the best passle experience, we strongly recommend you upgrade your browser.
| 1 minute read

Open-Ended Questions Elicit More Information from Children

For lawyers, deposing a child can be a frightening prospect, especially a child who might have been the victim of a crime. We can learn a lot from forensic interviewers about how to get the information we need without further traumatizing the child. A small, in-depth study about forensic interviewing of children reinforces the accepted wisdom that open-ended questions of children in forensic interviews elicit more information than specific questions. The researchers looked at more than 400 transcripts of interviews of children ages 4-12.  They found that questions in which interviewers asked children to "tell me more" elicited more information than narrower questions about details. (I will admit that I don't do higher math, so the rate of "interrater reliability" means nothing to me. I will just take their word for it that the difference was measurable.)

The problem for interviewers, of course, is that we often need detailed information such as location, dates, and people involved in order to set out or test a legal claim. If the children don't volunteer that information, we still have to get it from them. Nevertheless, the study adds to our knowledge that we should save those specific questions until we have gotten all of the freely-volunteered information that we can.

Even though the study was small, it is in line with previous research and adds some data points. I saw two good takeaways. First, interviewers sometimes started with an open-ended question, but then shifted to a specific one, such as, "Tell me more about what happened. Was the room hot or cold." Even though the interviewer intended to ask an open-ended question, the slide into specific details narrowed the amount of information that the child provided. Also, using exhaustive words in the question, such as "tell me everything" tended to elicit more voluntary information.  

Questioning children who may have been the victim of a crime is a difficult task that requires a lot of sensitivity.  Yet it is equally important to get as much information as we can. This study gives us additional tools to use in that task.

[F]orensic interviewers questioning children about abuse frequently cast or recast their questions in order to elicit specific information, especially during the substantive phase of their interviews. In doing so, they may lose the advantages of asking invitations, potentially reducing the productivity, responsiveness, and certainty of children’s responses. . . . The challenge is to train interviewers in how to maximize their use of open-ended questions without sacrificing their need for specific details.


youth services law, child witness

Related Insights