Asking "why" is often a reasonable way to find out information. However, in some circumstances it limits the response and circumvents the objective for asking the question. When trying to resolve behavioral issues asking "why" tends to lead a student on a mental chase of cause and effect. While this process is generally helpful for critical thinking, it does not necessarily promote beneficial and on-going self-reflection. Watch someone when you ask "why" and you " ll often see her / his eyes looking up as if s / he can see into her / his brain and get the answer. However, the brain is not where feelings reside; it is where they are intellectually processed.
Consequently, asking a student "why" is essentially asking for an explanation. Therefore, asking "why" often promotes a sense of confrontation and judgment which puts a student on the defensive, as if s / he has to justify her / himself to you. As a result the situation has become about your needs not hers / his. On the other hand, asking "what" is a neutral question which does not imply judgment. It is a simple question which promotes a reporting of events and / or feelings; an important first step when trying to resolve behavioral issues.
Asking "what" focuses the student's attention inward to the heart of the matter... literally the heart, the essence of the experience... the feelings. Asking "what" is a non-confrontational question that gives someone the opportunity to relate her / his experience; not to judge it and / or feel judged about it. Equally important is that asking "what" gives the questioner the opportunity to listen without prejudice.
If we truly wish to help a student change and grow then the first step is to honor her / his feelings as valid. It is only from this point that trust can begin to develop. When trust begins to form a student's emotional defenses can start to relax; s / he does not have to spend her / his energy in resistance, disengagement and ultimately anger. This reclaimed energy has the potential to become the willingness to experience and explore change..