Journ Student Jess

Student journalist looking for feedback on assignments and journalism in general

Things to Remember When Interviewing Children (Youth, too)

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Ashlyn McGregor, a 9-year-old third grader, gets a kiss from her mother Christina after performing Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” at the Shields Elementary talent show. Ashlyn, who is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, had always wanted to perform in the show.
Photo Credit | Clay Lomneth for MLive.com

One of my favorite groups of people to interview also happen to be one of the most difficult to communicate with. Not that kids don’t love to talk; sometimes you can’t get them to stop. Every once in awhile, an assignment comes up that presents a challenge for either the subject or interviewer. That happened to me when a freelance writer in the area passed along some information to my editor, and I was sent to Shields Elementary in Saginaw to see a 9-year-old student overcome her own challenges.

Her name was Ashlyn and she shocked me from the get-go. Although I knew beforehand she was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (or autism, for short) at a young age, I would not have believed it after meeting her. After singing along to Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb,” she received hugs from many of her classmates who were on stage to support her, closing out the end-of-year talent show. It was a rousing success, as the whole school cheered, her mother cried, and I forgot my worries the accompanying photographer taking video would possibly interrupt the performance.

She took me by surprise at first when I watched her hug her mom, who pointed me out and said I was the reporter who wanted to ask her a few questions. I knew enough about autism not to expect any type of physical contact, though I usually shake kid’s hands if they seem friendly (their responses get me every time.) Ashlyn walked right up to, threw her arms around me and thanked me for being there, while I quickly tried to pick my jaw up from the floor.

I didn’t want to keep her from celebrating with her classmates and family, so after a quick interview (and a fast handshake) I was out the door and climbing into my car as children hopped into school buses all around me. After walking out the doors of Shields Elementary and quickly gathering my thoughts, I sat and smiled for a minute, knowing I had just learned one of the fundamental things about interviewing kids- you will never cease to be surprised.

Just a week before, I spoke with 13-year-old Hannah about her love of spelling which has drawn her to national competitions. We talked about our mutual interest in science-fiction, her love of words and though she placed 43rd in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, she impressed me with the scope of her vocabulary and maturity. Though I only spoke with her over the phone while she is Washington, D.C. for the competition, we shared a few laughs and I learned more about interacting with teenagers.

In honor of Ashlyn and Hannah, here are a list of suggestions to keep in mind when interviewing children and even teenagers:

  1. Make sure the parents are involved: Especially if photographs are involved, guardians should be aware you are talking to their children and why. Be courteous, introduce yourself and make sure to let them know when they might see their kids published, they will appreciate it!
  2. Get down to their level: This is easy for me, being only 62 inches tall, but try your best to kneel, stoop, bend your knees or if they are pretty small, sit Indian-style on the ground with them. It helps maintain eye contact to get the little ones to focus on you and your questions, builds trust and even lends a bit of their perspective to the reporter.
  3. Stick with open-ended questions: Children tend to not elaborate, so try to use questions that build on their emotion. Many of the questions I asked of Ashlyn she answered yes or no, due to her autism, but talking about her experience performing and how she chose the song brought out her excitement and her talkative side. Save any serious questions for the parents, since children may just guess answers.
  4. Know when to take a break (in other words, be patient): Some kids have more energy than others and might not be able to sit still long enough for an interview. Try to be respectful of their schedules (like nap time or recess) and keep in mind children need more time to process information and have trouble with accuracy.
  5. Have fun: This should be a given. The great part about my job is meeting a lot of children, teenagers, even babies who I have written stories about. Interacting with kids is a wonderful experience, so be engaging and let yourself be engaged. Draw with chalk, go down the slide and laugh and smile. The story will be better for it, and you will too.

There it is, some more advice from a student journalist back in the newsroom. Check out these links if you are interested in reading about Ashlyn’s experience as an autistic student and watch her performance, or see Hannah spell local terms and talk about competing in a national spelling bee. Let me know what you think of this post, send along any tips you might add, and as always, thanks for reading.

Oh, here’s a picture of me with a fawn I wrote about for an assignment!
Photo Credit | Colleen Harrison

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Written by hayne2jr

June 13, 2013 at 3:22 am

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