Teacher and KidWith 4 to 6 percent of all students classified as having specific learning disabilities (SLD) in our nation’s public schools, every teacher can expect to find students with learning disabilities in the classroom. Success for these students requires a focus on individual achievement, individual progress, and individual learning. Despite obstacles, recent research tells us that we can teach these students how to learn.  We can put them into a position to compete! 

Specific strategies apply to specific learning disabilities, and many are outlined here. You will also find tips for working with children who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

You are here: HomeFor TeachersGaining Rapport in Child Interviews

Gaining Rapport in Child Interviews

 By Meg Heron-Blake

There is no one way of developing rapport with a student. Each person is unique and has individual characteristics that influence their mode of interacting, and therefore set a unique tone for the initial stages of a relationship. Thus, developing rapport often feels like an intuitive component of relationships. However it is important to more closely examine what comprises rapport, given that the initial encounter in a new relationship sets the tone for future interactions.

Not only is the ability to make an initial connection with someone important in the field of educational psychology, there is a great body of literature addressing the very initial stage of relationships for business people. Dale Carnegie’s 1936 best-selling How to Make Friends and Influence People, proved to be a seminal work with similar books providing a steady reading diet for people who want to improve their ability to gain rapport. Although establishing trust and gaining rapport can seem intuitive, it is not inevitable. In reflecting on my own experiences, my rapport with parents and students falls on a wide spectrum. Also, my ability to establish rapport has improved through the years, perhaps due to reflection when things have gone well or poorly and my diminishing anxiety as I become more professionally experienced. Understanding the components of rapport, the role of experience, and the obstacles to rapport helps me in my reflection about my relationships, particularly with in the case of testing, where new relationships are the norm. The building and maintaining of rapport is an ongoing process that is a part of all encounters.

Fuchs and Fuchs demonstrated the importance of relationship in the assessment process in a 1986 meta-analysis in which the effects of the examiner’s familiarity with children on test performance was assessed (as cited in Sattler, 1992). The results indicated that a child’s performance was raised on average by .28 standard deviations when the child was familiar with the examiner. The effect was even greater for children from low socioeconomic groups. Therefore a prior relationship may be an ideal situation. However, this is often not the case in schools and is rarely the case in a clinic.

What is rapport?

The dictionary definition of rapport is “relation; connection, especially harmonious or sympathetic relation”. A more specific definition for the purposes of a clinician comes from Sattler (1992). He wrote, “Rapport is based on mutual confidence, respect and acceptance. It is your responsibility to engage the interviewee and bring him or her to see you as a trusting and helping person.” In addition, being interested in the information provided, conveying the sense that you want to understand the world of the interviewee, sharing the struggle to recall and organize past experiences, appreciating their difficulty in discussing personal material, and wanting to accurately record their feelings and beliefs are more specific ways cited by Sattler to gain rapport.

Developmental Considerations

Each stage in a child’s development has its own challenges. The infant and toddler learn how to control their behavior and evolve a sense of self through exploring their relationship to the worlds of family and play. School-age children have the tasks of adjusting to the new environment of school, learning academics and socializing with peers. Adolescents are coming to grips with the self in terms of social development and choosing a path for work and career goals. Understanding developmental considerations can help the clinician to better understand the world of the client and to gain better rapport. Pianta writes, “Understanding these (developmental) themes, their organization, and the role for context is critical to understanding the role of relationships with adults in development for all children” (1999).


Sensitivity to the developmental level is necessary to interview a child and interpret their statements accurately. One of the pragmatic elements of this sensitivity is choosing language that is appropriate to the developmental level of the child. Misunderstandings and avoidable errors can occur when children are questioned as if they are adults. Instead, broad, general questions can be asked at the beginning of an interview and the responses used to determine a child’s language level. A clinician can analyze a child’s speech to determine level of intelligibility, the average sentence length, average number of syllables in words, complexity of grammar, tense and pronoun usage, and sophistication of vocabulary. This information can then guide the clinician to using age-appropriate language.

In addition, a clinician has to be sensitive to a child’s knowledge base and use care when asking a child questions that might highlight a gap in knowledge and might make the child ill at ease. Shaywitz and Camparo, in an article addressing interviewing child witnesses, give as an example that children who have not yet learned to count should not be asked how many times something has occurred. In interviewing children in the assessment process, I have similarly noted that children, particularly those with organizational problems, often have difficulty responding to questions regarding their schedule. Because a child who obtains resource help can have an erratic schedule, this is often something they have difficulty tracking.

James Garbarino (1990) in his book What Children Can Tell Us, also sheds light on linguistic developmental considerations when interviewing a child. Garbarino points out that children’s use of language is context-dependent and that words are tied to actions and relationships with people who know the children well. This premise is often demonstrated during an initial interview with a child or in a testing situation. A child may be unable to answer a general information question during an initial interview or testing. When an example is given to the parent, the parent will often say “Oh he knows that” and will cite an example of the child demonstrating such knowledge. The child does have the knowledge, but needs the support of a specific context or environment to draw upon that knowledge.

Finally, Garbarino relates a difference in the linguistic capabilities of older children, ages seven to twelve. These children begin to develop metacognitive skills. They can set themselves apart from the language in order to study it. A by-product of this examination is the fascination children of these ages often have with jokes, secret codes, and secretive languages, such as Pig Latin. This development can open the door to different rapport-building techniques than might be used with younger children who do not yet have this appreciation for language.

Nonverbal Language

Darwin in a book entitled The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals wrote about his in-depth cross- cultural studies of facial expressions and the way they serve as a universal communication system for people. Although that book was published in the late nineteenth century, only recently have greater numbers of special education professionals begun studying nonverbal modes of relating as it relates to special education populations.

Nonverbal cues can give an interviewer keys to building and maintaining rapport. A child who slouches in his chair or refuses to make eye contact may be indicating a resistance to the interview process or difficulty disclosing information. A clinician can then adjust their body language and approach in such a way so that the child will become engaged in the process. Calling attention to these cues can help a clinician clarify if their perception of a behavior is accurate. In addition, clinical observation of the nonverbal behaviors of a child may also give insight to a child’s difficulty. Observing a child’s gait, fine and gross motor coordination, posture and quality and tone of voice will provide you with information that can be useful in assessment.

The environment is also a contributing factor to the ease with which rapport is built with another. The seating arrangement in an office, the culture reflected in the artwork on the walls, the height of the hanging of the artwork (children or adult- centered), a phone turned on or off, and noises from the surrounding environment are just a few of the many environmental considerations.

Obstacles to Rapport

One key obstacle to gaining rapport with a child is the anxiety children routinely experience in an interview or testing situation. This is an issue with children of all ages, but young children are particularly susceptible. Slips of the tongue, repetitions, stuttering, frequent use of fillers, such as “ah”, and many others can be interpreted as signs of anxiety. Expressions of empathy can combat anxiety and provide the child with comfort in the unfamiliar setting. These expressions should acknowledge the child’s feelings without minimizing them. The clinician also experiences anxiety and stress, also causing a barrier to rapport. Kennedy and Charles in their book On Becoming a Counselor write, “The first moments of an interview, even when they are not marked by a subtle attack from a hostile client, still constitute a time of reciprocal stress. It is hard for persons to come and talk about their problems; it is also difficult for busy counselors constantly to readjust their emotional reactions in order to be open, accepting and understanding toward the long line of people who come for help. It is not unusual to detect some awkwardness in a situation that is not only novel for a client but also stressful for a counselor.”

Garbarino relates many obstacles to having meaningful dialogues with children (1990). First, there are often situational constraints, meaning that a child being interviewed may feel a loss of control over events and therefore become less spontaneous and talkative. Also, some children do not want to answer questions that they know the adult can answer already. This is not only a consideration in rapport-building but also in the testing process in general. In my experience, some children have been unwilling to retell a well-known story or tell it in its entirety for a language sample, knowing the clinician already knows the story.

Cultural Considerations

There are many cultural considerations in the process of rapport-building. Even broad constructs such as age and sex-roles have special and unique meanings in different cultures. The task for a clinician attempting to build rapport is to create an environment and to ask questions that are sensitive to the culture of a child and his/her family.

Verbal and Nonverbal Strategies of Rapport in Cross-Cultural Interviews, Susan Fiksdal (1988) examines rapport-building from a linguistic and cultural perspective. She found that an obstacle to rapport between two adults of different cultures was use of culture-specific expressions and proverbs. Also, she found that interviewers were less likely to use expressions that presuppose common ground such as “you know”. Further, rapport between people of different cultures was also hindered by reluctance on the part of the interviewer to share stories, thinking that their client may not understand the connection. Thus, interactions between people from different cultures were often lacking in some of the subtle linguistic aspects of rapport-building.

Building rapport is a fundamental in a clinician-child interaction. Rapport is a complex process that is often omitted in instructional programs since it is a life-skill that comes naturally to many social beings. However, by analyzing the components of good rapport, one can enhance the probability of providing the best services for a child.

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