Repeat Questions from Students
with Special Needs in the Classroom:
What to Do?

A teacher recently shared that she has a student in her class who keeps repeating the same question even after she has responded to it. The student will ask the teacher, “When will we get our tests back?” To which the teacher will reply, “I will give them back tomorrow, as I have not finished making all the corrections yet.” However, 10 minutes later, the student will proceed to ask the same question.

This reminded me of a similar scenario with a student I know of who used an AAC device. This student also repeated the same question, even though the teacher had responded to the question. The student would activate his device to ask, “When do we go to the library?” To which the teacher would respond by saying, “We will go to the library after break.” However, within 10 minutes of the first question, the student proceeded to repeat the same question.

On the surface, these two situations are quite different. However, they have some commonality, as both scenarios can only be resolved if the teacher understands the basic motivation for the repeat questions.

Paying attention to repeat questions is important to avoid the establishment of a persistent interaction pattern. Repetitive behaviors are not only cumbersome to the teacher, but can also evoke challenging comments and responses from peers. It is thus worthwhile to invest time in understanding why the student uses repeat questions. What are possible reasons for this type of communication behavior?

Reasons for Repeat Questions

"Thinking" emoji with question marksTeachers often describe these behaviors as attention-seeking. The assumption is that the students want attention, but have no new information to share. However, at least in my experience, this is seldom what is at stake here. These behaviors are often active attempts to communicate a nagging dissatisfaction or discomfort experienced by the students.

Although these behaviors can be momentarily suppressed by a distraction or token, they are bound to resurface. The specific reason for the behavior could include:

  • short-term memory problems (not remembering that the question was asked until it is pointed out);
  • a need to interact or make a contribution (but with little skill to know what is appropriate);
  • anxiety about the outcome of the test results (anxiety about grades); and in the more extreme cases,
  • an attempt to escape or avoid the task at hand.

One good strategy that I have seen in classrooms is the use of a question board. Teachers would write the question asked, with responses, on the board. This written format acts as a reminder of which questions were already responded to. The challenge is one of reinforcing the behavior that students first need to look at the board before asking another question.

Another strategy is to approach the student (who seems to be in need to interact with the teacher) by ensuring him/her that you will be available to talk at break (or another suitable time). This could be challenging at first; but as the student realizes that there will be an assigned time to talk to the teacher, this need might decrease over time. Writing the question and response on the white board is helpful in reminding the student that they will interact later. An opportunity to interact is particularly important with students who experience significant anxiety about his/her performance or grades in the classroom.

Setting up an opportunity to interact with a student is a positive step forward. The art of it is to approach the interaction with the student with an openness that can encourage the student to talk without feeling pressured. Starting off by simply interacting (with no specific agenda) can prove more productive than trying to “solve a problem” in interacting with a student.

Application to Students Who Use AAC

Behavior difficulties with students can often be alleviated by affirming a teacher’s interest in and willingness to be with the student. In the case of students who use AAC, this interaction can be even more important. We are often so focused on “how to use the AAC device” that we forget that merely interacting and being with the student is fundamental to learning. Truth be told, making time to allow ourselves to be with our students can be some of the most productive learning opportunities for both teacher and student.

Please feel free to comment; and of course forward this message to others who you think might find it useful.

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