Updated: Jul 9, 2020
There is a profound difference between "teaching why questions" and answering the question "why". To teach "why" questions is to teach children to emit preselected/’scorable’ responses to Sds selected from arbitrary lists often found in popular 'curricula'.
On the other hand...
To be able to answer the question "why"...is to be able to reason...and then to state it your reason.
To be able to reason is "to deduce consequences from assumptions, infer explanations from data, derive conclusions from evidence. To come to a conclusion on the basis of reasons presupposes the ability to weigh different considerations for and against doing something. That in turn requires the ability to judge that 'this' cause of action is better than 'that' one, because... In order to be able to act or think that something is so for a reason, one must be able to deliberate, to make reasoned choices in thought and action and hence to give justifications and explanations. In short, one must be able to answer the question "why". (PMS Hacker, 2013)
...And once one has reasoned, one may state their reason/s for why they did or didn't do something, say or didn't say something, felt some way or other, believed, desired, needed or hoped for something etc..
Quantification and reasons
With all that said, we need to ask, "Can there be right or wrong reasons. Is there a right reason for questions like, "Why are you going upstairs?, "Why are you so sad?", "Why didn't you tell Mommy?" or just "WHY?" (What possible "generalized response" could there be to any of these questions?). The answer is unequivocally, "No!”, there are no right or wrong reasons...although there are appropriate and inappropriate moves in the language game. So how do you score and track progress? Should we dare consider what it actually takes to get children to begin to answer the question "why"... even if it is difficult to reconcile with our drive for quantification and related insistence on stimulus control? The answer is an unequivocal “Yes!, we should if we are to move children beyond simply "emitting" rote verbal responses.
What does it take
To get the ball rolling, many things need to be place first. It can’t be emphasized enough… Children need to learn to do things; to make things, go places, give and get things, look for things etc. before introducing the concept “why”. And once children are doing things, they should be able to report on what they are doing, where they are going or using and asking for things they are using as they need them.
One starting point we consider before introducing “why” is to leverage “functions”. In Early Intervention for Children with ASD: Considerations we teach children language surrounding tool use...answering questions about the functions of things, in the moment, as children learn to actually use tools. For example, as a child is gluing sticks onto paper while they make a car, we ask "What are you using to attach the sticks to the paper?", to which they learn to answer according to the thing they are using (glue, tape, velcro etc). Children need to learn to use all kinds of tools… the hang things up, to carry things, to stick things together etc. and to learn the corresponding concepts related to these kinds of events/ activities. Only then can we consider an attempt to teach children to answer the question “why”.
Piggybacking off of Interrupted Chains
Piggybacking off of interrupted chains, (i.e., sabotaging a child’s effort toward some goal) can be a useful strategy to begin to target the concept “why”. For example, once a child can make things, e.g., make a house using sticks (wherein the child needs glue or some other tool in order to attach the sticks to the paper) remove the glue. By now the child has learned to ask for things she needs, can tell you what they need to attach the sticks to the paper so now when the child asks for the glue, we can ask “Why do you need it?”… to which our prompts will sound like “I need to glue on the sticks”. Simple. And it is. What is not simple is engineering all of the many things which need to be in place before we can hope to help children begin offer reasons. That is the hard part.