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Helping Your Child Learn to Listen

Helping Your Child Learn to Listen

Helping Your Child to Listen

Helpig Your Child to Listen
Patricia McAleer Hamaguchi, M.A., CCC-SLP

Why Is Listening Important?
Children learn in many ways.  As infants, they touch, smell, and watch others.  When they are learning to talk, listening becomes even more important.  Understanding what someone says is called auditory comprehension.  As children hear and understand words, they develop their own speech and language skills.

As children approach preschool age, they learn to play together.  Sharing simple conversations and listening to each other’s ideas become more important as children develop friendships and language.

In school, children need to listen for longer periods of time, tuning out other noises and distractions in the classroom.  In fact, children spend more time listening in school than anything else.  If they develop good listening skills, they will have a better chance at succeeding in school.

What Can a Parent Do to Help?
Be Absolutely Sure Your Child Hears Normally

Make sure your child’s hearing and fluid level in the ears are tested periodically, particularly after a cold or ear infection.  If a doctor suggests ventilation “tubes,” have them inserted to prevent further disruption in your child’s critical developmental years.

Speak in a Way Your Child Can Understand
  • Turn down the TV or radio so your child can hear you without competing noise
  • Get your child’s attention (for example, call “Matthew” by name
  • Wait until your child is looking at you (gently turn him/her toward you if needed)
  • Stand close to your child, squatting at eye level is possible
  • Speak slowly
  • Pause between thoughts
  • Give one direction at a time
  • Give your child time to think after a question
  • Say your message again, another way


  • Long explanations or complicated directions
  • Using “adult-like” idioms (such as, “Try to put yourself in my shoes”) unless you explain them

Help Your Child Be an Active Listener

Even at an early age, children can learn what helps them listen.  Here are a few suggestions:

Eliminate Distractions.  When beginning a conversation or instructions, make sure the TV and stereo are off.  If the dishwasher and/or dryer are nearby and making noise, move to another room.  Explain that you are doing this because, “It is time to listen,” and you need quite to do so.  Discuss how hard it is to think about what someone is saying when there are other noises to think about or other things to see.

Your child needs to learn to do this independently.  Give feedback and praise when he does so: “What a good idea!  That music from the video game will make it hard for us to listen to each other.  I’m glad you turned it off.  Now we can listen better.”

Practice good listening behaviors.  When we listen to another person speaking, we make eye contact.  It is also socially polite to stop what we are doing (reading, writing, and other activities) while listening.  Many children with listening difficulties need practice doing this.  And because they may be highly distractible, these behaviors often take their focus away from what is being said.  Social language behaviors are called pragmatic skills by speech-language pathologists.

Talk about how looking at the person speaking helps keep your eyes away from other things (such as a colorful poster or a squirrel running up a tree).  Discuss how looking at the person who is talking makes that person feel as though what he is saying is important to the listener.

Practice this throughout the week as a family.  It is a good habit for everyone to practice, and it reinforces the concept.

After eye contact is practiced successfully, begin to work on the rest of the body.  When a person is listening, the body should be relatively still.  Hands should be relaxed and not tapping pencils, pulling paper clips apart, and so forth.  Feet should be quiet and still.  Practice this as a family as well.  Teach your child to be aware of what his/her body is and isn’t doing when he/she is listening.

(In some cases, a child with hyperactivity may need to be allowed some no interfering motion when listening.  Talk to a special education teacher, a psychologist, or a speech-language pathologist for some individual suggestions).

Give feedback.  Encourage your child to ask you to explain words or phrases he doesn’t understand: “I don’t understand that.”  Sometimes children understand short phrases but get confused when they are putting together in conversation.  This is called a language processing or auditory processing problem.

For children with listening problems, long directions are hard to remember.  Remembering what people say is called auditory memory.  By making listening a successful experience, your child will avoid “tuning out.”

Talk together about how hard it is to remember so many things together sometimes.  Brainstorm what to do if someone says too many things at one time.  Encourage your child to say, “I can’t remember all that.  Can you tell me one thing at a time?”

Give positive praise whenever your child has let you know that they’ve forgotten something you’ve said or is trying to understand it: “I’m glad you told me this.  This time I’ll tell you one thing at a time.  Are you ready?”

Use strategies to help you remember.  What if your spouse wanted you to pick up 4 things from the grocery store?  Most of us search for a pen, because writing the items down ensures that we will be able to follow through on the request later.  Because children are even less able to remember multiple items or directions, they too can benefit from learning to write things down.  But what if they don’t know how to write yet?

  • You can help your child learn to draw a simple sequence of pictures to remember the steps.  For example, suppose the directions are to “go upstairs, brush your teeth, wash your face, and put your pajamas on.”  Together, you can brainstorm how to draw several pictures to remind your child what to do. Listening and putting pictures in order is also a good way to prepare for taking notes in later school years.
  • Help your child make a mental picture of what is being described.  (Sometimes closing out eyes helps block out distractions).  Describe a scene, such as a farm:  “I saw a farm with a white, wooded fence around the pigs.  Some of the pigs were rolling around in mud.  Nearby a farmer was feeding some chickens.”  Have your child draw a picture of the farm on paper.  Talk about what we “see” in our minds.
  • Help your child learn to listen for “important” information during story time.  Ask simple who, what, where, or when questions, then read the next sentence or two from the story.  See if your child can remember the answers.