elevating child care

10 Secrets To Raising Good Listeners

Listening skills are essential to learning. Children who listen well not only develop strong language abilities, they find gaining knowledge in any subject easier, less stressful and more successful. Since attentive listeners retain most of what they hear in the classroom, they don’t need to study as much (a big plus, especially in middle and high school).

But listening is a growing problem for young children to the extent that preschools are now finding it necessary to “teach” listening in some Pre-K programs. A parent recently left this comment on my post A Baby Ready For Kindergarten, College And Life:

“I was chatting with one of the teachers from the 4/5 room at my daughter’s preschool. I asked her what they do differently at that age. She said, ‘we don’t worry about letters or numbers per se in terms of kindergarten readiness. We want our kids to learn listening skills.’ She said that is what they need for kindergarten. She also said they do teach letters and numbers as well as art, music etc… but the goal in the older class is to get the kids to listen… the other stuff will come easily then.”

True, but troubling.  Why the need as early as preschool to try to “get kids to listen”?

The typical baby is a born listener. In fact, a newborn baby’s auditory system is the most strongly developed of all the sensory systems. Hearing may be slightly impeded by fluid in the baby’s inner ear, but in her eagerness to engage she’ll work around that. Infants tune in to their parents’ voices from the womb and are highly motivated to continue doing so. Their survival depends on the ability to listen and learn to communicate needs. So, what happens between birth and kindergarten?

The answer is unclear, but here are some ways to ensure the development of healthy auditory skills…

1. Tell babies before you pick them up (and about everything else that’s going on in their immediate world).

This is probably the most simple and profoundly beneficial advice infant expert Magda Gerber offers, but it continues to be challenging for new parents. I think that’s because it feels unnatural, awkward and a little embarrassing (especially in front of other adults) to say “Now I’m going to pick you up” to someone who won’t be able to talk back for a long time. But once it becomes habit it seems bizarre NOT to do. And it is a habit so worth forming. It is not only respectful – because it teaches babies that we consider them worthy of knowing what’s going on — it also encourages attentive listening. Furthermore, it is the natural and best way for babies to learn language, because these words really matter to the child. In other words, engage your baby in…

2. Meaningful dialogue.

Babies love to be talked to, sung to, or receive our attention, period. But they are especially encouraged to keep listening when we focus our dialogue on important, pertinent things, like where babies are, what’s happening with their bodies, what they are touching, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, etc. And don’t skimp on the details — they want to hear and know it all.

But that doesn’t mean we need to ramble or give a running commentary on our every thought…

3. Create a peaceful atmosphere.

A generally peaceful environment encourages babies to tune in, whereas too much auditory stimulation has the opposite effect. Babies are sensitive and easily over-stimulated.

4. Talk slowly and respectfully.

Babies are encouraged to listen when we speak slowly enough for them to at least begin to understand. And babies sense when they are being talked down to. They are more inclined to listen when they know that we are taking them as seriously as they take us.

5. Acknowledge sounds.

Especially when you sense your baby has heard the dog barking or the garbage truck, acknowledge and describe the sounds, “That dog barked loudly, didn’t he?  I heard it, too.”  And comment on the sounds he makes himself, “I hear you patting the wood floor.” The baby learns not only that words are meaningful, but so are other kinds of sounds.

6. Don’t talk about babies as if they don’t hear.

Parents will invariably have issues they need to bring up or stories to share in my RIE parent – infant classes regarding their babies. A baby as young as 3 or 4 months of age will, without fail, suddenly look at me when the parent begins talking about him. The child seems to know exactly what is going on. Either the parent or I (or both) will always acknowledge, “Your mommy’s telling me about you not sleeping well last night. You cried.” If we don’t include a baby in our conversation, especially when it pertains to him, we discourage his participation and his motivation to listen.

7. Minimize exposure to back end conversations.

Equally discouraging is constant exposure to one-sided conversations that are impossible for a baby to understand. Make phone calls while the baby sleeps or out of earshot whenever possible.

8. Use “no” sparingly.

Our child is encouraged to listen to our words when they have something to offer him… a description, an explanation, something that helps him learn and understand. Sometimes, without question, that word is “no”. But there are also times when we can say no in a more explicit way, i.e., “You want to keep playing outside, but I can’t let you. It’s time to go in.”  Or, “That leaf isn’t safe to put in your mouth. I’m going to hold it for you to look at.”

9. Tell stories, play music and/or sing, listen to stories on CD, read books. 

Not only do these activities encourage active listening, they foster creativity (especially the first three) because children make their own mental images for the words or sounds.

10. Be aware that screens are a listening turn-off.

I list this last, but it’s definitely not least. In fact, if the inability to listen well is an increasing concern, my hunch is that the increased use of screens is to blame. The visuals in movies, TV and video games are overwhelmingly engaging. Our child doesn’t really listen because he doesn’t need to, and the inferior language models usually offered aren’t worth hearing anyway. Screen time, even if it’s “educational,” can train children not to listen.

In a section about phonics in her fascinating book, Endangered Minds – Why Children Don’t Think And What We Can Do About It, brain researcher Dr Jane Healy notes, “These auditory systems are in a period of critical development during the very preschool years when so many youngsters are watching the tube. Researchers agree that when given both visual displays and dialogue, children attend to and remember the visual, not the “talk.” (Even for most adults, listening can’t compete with looking if the brain is given the chance to do both at the same time.) Yet, if auditory processing skills aren’t embedded in the brain during the critical early years, it is much harder, if it is even possible to insert them later.”

Comments? I’m all ears.

I share more about nurturing our children’s natural abilities in

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

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39 Responses to “10 Secrets To Raising Good Listeners”

  1. avatar tlv mom says:

    Hi Janet,

    Thank you for the great post.

    Sometimes when I feel my 2.5 year old is not listening to me, I will get down to his eye level and/or ask him to look at me so I can tell him something.

    I don’t know if this encourages listening, or is just a work-around for a child that has learned to tune out. But, it seems to work.

    Oshrat

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks, Oshrat! Speaking to a child at his or her eye level and asking for eye contact definitely encourages attentive listening. You and Lisa (below) both offered that important addition to the list and I appreciate it!

  2. avatar Erica says:

    This is definitely a benefit of the RIE approach for us. We’ve always broadcasted to our daughter and she was a very attentive listener from the get-go. We are very careful of what we say around her because even at 19 months, she picks up EVERYTHING. It’s such a good habit to get into – to respectfully engage your child with conversation even before they can respond because they get that ability so quickly – you might as well have the habit in place.

  3. avatar Lisa Sunbury says:

    Such an important topic, since we rely so much on oral language to communicate with each other. It’s not just important for children to be able to listen in order to learn well, but it’s an important skill for them to develop in order to thrive socially as well.

    Two additional tips to help adults help children listen:

    Make sure you have their attention by getting down to their level, and making eye contact. Because little ones listen with all of their senses, and they often become so involved in what they are doing, they may literally not hear when we make a request from across the room, for instance.

    And while this one might seem so obvious it shouldn’t even have to be mentioned, and you’ve written about it before, I think it’s so important, it can’t be emphasized enough:

    If we want our babies to listen to us, we have to remember to pause, and listen to them – often. Their “language” is a little different from ours- at least at first, so learning to cue into the non-verbal signs and cries they give us is so important.

    It has been my experience that babies who are listened to grow into children who are able to listen well to others, and participate fully in the “conversations” of learning, relationship, and life!

    • avatar janet says:

      Brilliant, Lisa! I wholeheartedly agree. Thank you so much for adding these tips.

  4. avatar Petra says:

    Article made me cry. I’m German, dad is Australian, and we try to raise our children (1.5 and 3) bilingually. But I’ve been away so long from a German environment, I find it so hard to find the right words in German, esp under stress (most of the time). What’s more important? What you describe, or to give them a second language from birth? Feeling like a failure on both fronts. Know the standard answers like books, films, go to Germany, German playgroups, and apply what I can.

    • avatar janet says:

      Petra, the last I want to do is discourage or upset you! I think the important thing is that you make the effort to communicate, not which language you are speaking. Children who are exposed to more than one language in the beginning tend to speak a little later, but then they are fluent in both languages. Comprehension and “listening” happens long before a child can verbalize. Maybe I’m not understanding you, but I don’t see why you are being so hard on yourself!

      • avatar Laurence P says:

        If I may add something Petra, I think that you are giving a wonderful gift to your children with another langage and culture. Remember that a language isn’t only vocabulary but also grammatical structures. No matter what mistakes you might do now, it will be easier for your children to learn German if they are familiar with the way you build your sentences, and also think in German (don’t you think that you can say some things easily in German and not in English and vice versa ? You don’t really think alike in different languages). I’m sure that when you make some vocabulary mistakes in your new country, everybody say that it’s of very little importance.

        You can also think about the gift your children are making to you, by giving you the opportunity to take some time to reconnect with your original culture.

        Besides I think that children not only understand the words but also the intonation and the way you speek to them. If this is difficult for you, you can tell them. I found it was very important for me to apologise to my son, for instance when I got nervous and frustrated with him. He is only six months old. So I don’t think he understands all the words. But when I do this he really listens with great intensity. And afterwards we are both relaxed (partly because I often understand better why I was nervous).

        Your children don’t want to be perfect German speekers. It is more important to them to learn to understand your culture, the way you like to show it to them. If you make some mistakes, they will learn that even you, their mother, you aren’t perfect. And maybe this is also a great lesson for them.

        • avatar Mariyam says:

          Petra, I am experiencing something very similar to what you are describing. I am from Russia and am also trying to raise my child (22 months) bilingually. What i find is interesting is that my Russian is still my “better” language in principle but english is my most immediate language and is now “in front” of Russian in my brain, so to speak. So while I am making this committed effort to only speak Russian to my daughter, I find myself very frustrated with not finding the right words immediately and realizing that it is often easier to say things in English. So lately I decided to relax about the whole “Russian only” thing and allow my own language to flow in whatever form it wants (russian or English). Maybe it is my wishful thinking, but I think my daughter became also more talkative once I decided on letting go. Maybe because I enjoy talking to her more now without this constant censoring of myself.

    • avatar Anita says:

      Hi Petra,
      I just want to say that I grew up with two parents with English as their second language. My mum is of German heritage and my dad is French Canadian. They both did not speak either language to my brother or I growing up. Much of the culture was shared in my home, and different languages were spoken, but not TO us and not with the intention for us to understand. When I press my mother about this today, as an adult, she has shared with me that she had never learned German in school and she was concerned that she would teach me the language incorrectly. This saddens me. I wish very much that my mum felt she could share what was in her – whatever that was going to look like – that we could have spoken together in her mother tongue and that I could have spoken to my Oma in her mother tongue. Don’t let the need for perfection slow your efforts down when it comes to exposing your children to your heritage. Give them what you can of it, and when they are older they will at least have a foundation in which to build from, grow from, if they find themselves hungry for more.

  5. avatar Vicki says:

    Love this – I find myself talking to my baby all day, in part so I don’t go nuts while my husband works, but mostly because I can see that he likes it! He follows my voice if he is playing on his own and he looks at me when we talk together.

    I really like what I’ve been reading about the RIE approach – thank you for all the information!

  6. avatar shana says:

    This is probably the most import article you’ve written, to me. I have to admit, I’m a terrible listener, if I can gloat, I got everything else going for me, but this one thing I don’t. And I now understand why. I was a TV baby through and through, and my mother can tell you how smart I am because I watched TV. How as a baby I was glued to Sesame Street and how as child all I wanted was to watch National Geographic and PBS documentaries – but I also watched everything else, the TV was always on and we had one in almost every room. My parents didn’t grow up with a TV, so maybe they thought it was a good thing to have so many.

    It really hit me that I was a bad listener when I started college. I had a friend who was an international student, he had very little money, and didn’t think paper for note taking was a necessary expense. We had a psych class together, that was known to be impossible to get an A in. We were both stubborn and determined to keep our 4.0s. I came to the class with a tape recorder, my computer, and my notebook. He came with nothing. The professor gave no notes, showed no slides, she just spoke. I couldn’t keep up. I was really struggling to match up what I wrote she had said and what was in the book. When I played back the tape recorder, it was so frustrating I had to replay sentences over and over. I felt like I just didn’t get it, I couldn’t focus. I could never understand what was wrong with me. I was always an A student, but I never had to take notes from just someone talking. Really, I don’t know how I got away with that all through High School. My friend said it was such an easy class, because her test is just everything she talks about. He didn’t even review or study. He just said he listened. He got an A, and I, with all my notes and studying, and hours in the library, I barely scraped a B-. It was alarming to me. I quickly changed my major to computers, because it was something very concrete and I could learn it on my own without having to listen to anyone. I did very well, anyway, but I wonder how much farther I could have gone.

    Thank you so much for this article. You really made me think over what I believe in, and what I don’t and realized that sometimes we just do things without realizing, but when we realize what we’ve doing it makes us grow.

    • avatar janet says:

      Shana, thank you so much for sharing this story! One of the great things about becoming a parent is that we get to have epiphanies like these — I have had my own versions of your story. And the beauty is that is once we realize and understand the (usually well-intentioned) parenting practices our parents used that didn’t serve us well, we have the wonderful opportunity to do something different, not reactionary, but mindful, careful and intentional. In my experience it is very healing. Kudos to you for being so aware!

  7. avatar Loren says:

    Thank you Janet. Your blog, your posts are so important and very appreciated. Just this morning we were at a birthday party and the host couple had a TV going for the kids. My son was very engaged and it took me awhile to realize that the sound wasn’t even on! This makes sense. Thank you.

  8. Hi Janet,
    Thanks for this post. I’m an Audiologist. I just wanted to add that Children with fluid in their middle ears, (ESP if it is there for a long time) often have a fluctuating hearing loss. This means the child hears speech inconsistently. If this is the case over many years it can lead to auditory processing difficulties. This is because the auditory system is getting an inconsistent signal. Strategies like getting close, turning off background noise (tv) and getting a child’s attention first are all strategies that help.

    It is important to try and manage middle ear problems as they can effect on speech and Lang development and can lead to auditory processing difficulties later.

    • avatar Jane says:

      How can we find out if our children have fluid in the middle ear? Can a pediatrician see it? My daughter has some speech problems so I’m wondering about this.

  9. I love this post and the points you make about meaningful communication. I think often as parents we feel the need to “lavish language” on our children. That can be great as long as it’s done in a meaningful way, and as you say not just rambling or running commentary that causes babies to be over-stimulated and tune out. I encourage parents to be thoughtful about what they say to their babies and how that allows for real interactions and language growth. Here’s what I wrote about that… http://thelittlestories.com/2011/11/04/talk-less-talk-smart/

  10. avatar Sarah says:

    Thanks very much for sharing. With more exposure to rie, peaceful parenting, etc i have sensed lately an urge to warn my 10 month old b4 picking her up, laying her down for changin etc. had i not read this, i dont hink i would have the courage to do it. Thanks again!

  11. avatar Tanya says:

    I have some questions about “late talkers” . My 18 month old has about 10 words (up, mama, pop, bye bye, hello, bird) and several sounds (woof, moo, meow) which he started picking up when he was about a year old. Sometimes he’ll go several weeks or months without using one or several words or sounds and then he’ll pick them up again. He’s adding words and sounds very slowly. He does understand, communicate and listen very very well! I feel like he understands everything i’m saying, he uses some signs and lots of body language, and he seems to hear and listen to everything around him unless he’s very engaged and focused on something. His lack of verbal communication skills does not seem to be a source of frustration for him. We’re away visiting family right now and two different relatives who took care of him while I went out commented on how easy it was to communicate with him and understand his needs and wants. I’m aware that he’s a late talker but I haven’t been particularly concerned about it especially since I know other children (boys) who started talking late and now at age 4 you would never know the difference. My cousin, who is a speech therapist recommended that I start doing some things to help him develop his verbal language skills: get him some musical instruments to blow, bubbles, focus more on pronunciation and simplify sentences, wait longer to pick him up while encouraging “up, up, up”, look into the mirror with him while talking etc.. Musical instruments and blowing bubbles sound like great fun as long as he’s into it, but I feel hesitant to focus on his speech in these other ways. Aside from being more loving, I talk to him like I would to anyone else. I feel there are so many things to think about – I would like for him to learn to wait to be picked up if I’m in the middle of something rather than wait until he can say “up”. My cousin said that the research shows that children who talk earlier have better language skills later on. I wonder – is this true or even important? I would love to hear your thoughts about this!

  12. avatar Katie says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this blog post! We practice all of these – some come naturally, while others my husband and I work at. My 14 month old daughter understands so much! Friends, family and strangers constantly comment that they are amazed by her comprehension, and honestly so are we.

    I find her interest in listening is so helpful in guiding her towards appropriate behavior, particularly in public places. We practice your suggestions at home, but perhaps the benefit most clearly while we’re out and about. While a coffee shop is not an ideal setting for a baby, sometimes Mama needs a cuppa. When she and I can spend 30 minutes sipping coffee & milk, listening to all of the hustle and bustle of our city neighborhood, commenting and asking questions – both verbally and non-verbally – we both benefit!

  13. Often there seems to be an imbalance in the lives of children, with too much directed at a child (one way communication from others as well as from toys/electronics/media)yet too little responsiveness to the child. You’ve given wonderful suggestions to alleviate this.

    I think another problem for young children, well, all of us really, is having too little time to daydream and too little time spent in nature. These experiences teach us to commune with the quiet voice inside us and create an ability to draw on subtle lessons found in any contemplation of nature. This really gets to the core of an issue that resounds throughout life.

    Reminds me of Daniel Stern’s work on infant responsiveness, that led him to study how we listen and respond in adulthood. Here’s a little about his Scale of Attuned Responses. http://lauragraceweldon.com/2011/03/30/how-to-listen-how-to-be-heard/ Basically, a way of testing how well we listen and are listened to.

  14. avatar Everett says:

    My 3 and 5 both watch some TV. I am now worried. Can I somehow correct any listening problems? What suggestions do you have? We do many creative and adventurous activities but I’m now concerned. Suggestions?

  15. avatar Marian says:

    Listening skills are indeed important and helpful for learning, but beware not to rely on them all by themselves. I was a top-of-the-class student until mid-adolescence when I started having a hard time listening in class because of distressing preoccupations (being worried about social justice and the state of the planet). Since I’d always relied on “getting it” through simply listening, I’d never learned how to study without it, and my grades suffered as a result. I realized afterwards that no one ever taught me studying skills, i.e. how to catch up on what was covered in an oral presentation if you missed it or had a hard time processing it. So, while I agree that any child who doesn’t have natural listening abilities should be helped to learn them, I also recommend giving them other study tools to fall back on once they’re in the position of needing them for school.

  16. Do they mean children don’t listen, or don’t like what they are hearing?

    Is “listen” by the Pre K teacher a euphemism for “comply”?

  17. avatar Judi Pack says:

    I think Jennifer Lehr has a great point. I have never understood how teachers think they need to “teach” listening skills. Children learn how to be good listeners, in part, by being around adults who are good, active listeners. It’s called conversation. It means that adults listen to babies coo and gurgle, then reciprocate. With toddlers and older children, we listen attentively, ask open ended questions and do this sincerely and with interest and curiosity. It is so disappointing to hear teachers “shushing” children during circle time without thinking about whether or not what is taking place is of any real interest to young children. True listening is not simply being quiet while someone else speaks, it is truly listening, hearing and beng involved in the speaker’s words and thoughts. I’m afraid school emphasizes too much of the being quiet and behaved, rather than truly being involved in a conversation.

  18. avatar Loudine says:

    What a wonderful article! I hope to do my Master’s degree in early Childhood Development next year, and the way children learn to coordinate their senses (turning their heads to see where a sound is coming from) is fascinating to me. These are fantastic tips for encouraging infants to become better communicators and listeners.

  19. avatar Robin says:

    There is some indication that many sonograms contribute to hearing and auditory processing issues, and then of course listening. More research definitely needs to be done!

  20. avatar candice says:

    I find it beneficial to get on my child’s level and ask her to look at me when I speak to her; especially when I am giving instructions or explaining something. I agree that the visual helps with true listening opposed to just hearing.

  21. avatar Jen says:

    What about selective listening? We don’t do tv and I make every effort to communicate effectively, but my 4 year old who is very well spoken (so I know he KNOWS how to listen) chooses not to actually process what I am saying and I am trying to figure out how to better go about things. An example was I was down at his level asking him to stand on the sidewalk while I put his brother in the car seat. I could see his gaze move to behind me and then he made a random off topic comment. After engaging that comment, I asked if he heard what I had said and he admitted he wasn’t paying attention. Often he seems to tune me out even face to face. So now what?

  22. avatar Gwennifer says:

    I think you’re partly responding to a misunderstanding of what the teacher originally meant in this quote. Certainly in my children’s school “listening skills” is not about hearing and complying with instructions. It’s learning to consciously hear the difference between similar sounds, necessary for phonics later, which starts at nursery level (2-3) with games such as distinguishing between different musical instruments, graduating to different sorts of bells. “Sitting and listening”, ie sustained attention to another person, is also taught through (short) story time on the carpet. Obviously cooperation with teachers is also encouraged, but that’s certainly not how I read the original quote.

    • avatar janet says:

      I don’t believe I’m misunderstanding. I’m talking about the attentive listening children need to be able to absorb and learn. I disagree that this needs to be “taught”. Children are born with this ability, but it needs to be nurtured.

  23. avatar Vanessa says:

    I am curious if screen time would still be viewed as not beneficial, if the child retains (in detail) the information (“the talk”) from the shows he or she watches.

    When I do let my son watch shows, he remembers so much of the “verbal content” he absorbed from watching the show. Afterward, he will tell me all about what he learned, and it sparks up some fascinating conversations between him and I.

    If watching (educational) shows occasionally could still be harmful to him, I would want to be conscious of that, and set whatever limits would be best for him.

    Any thoughts?

  24. avatar Kara says:

    We didn’t own a TV until I was in high school. Until then our inside entertainment was books and audio stories. I chose audio most often, and my sister chose reading. We both were good students in college–I relied more on listening skills, and she retained everything she read. She still loves reading, and I still love audio books. Not having a TV allows kids to figure out and develop their own learning-styles organically.

  25. avatar Rachael says:

    Thanks for the article. I wish I had never let my 3.5 year old son use an iPad or watch TV. I have only recently discovered your website and am trying to make changes to try and change both our behaviours. He is such hard work at times – openly defies what I ask him to do/ not to do and I’m really at my wits end how to deal with this. I am so sick of being a ‘cranky mummy. Any tips or particular articles you have that explains how to better connect with a 3.5 year old and reducing screen time ( without creating WW3) would be greatly appreciated !

  26. avatar carol says:

    Well, this is interesting, but what does the preschool teacher mean by “teaching listening”? Many times I see that teachers are saying “you need to listen” and what they mean is “you need to obey”. Often I hear preschool teachers saying “good listening” because a child has followed a specific direction. We want children to listen to adults. Often, That’s as far as it goes. Rarely do we really listen to children and seek to understand their perspective. Teaching exchanges at circle time go from teacher asking a question, child giving a response, teacher asking a question, next child giving a response. This is not real listening. It’s the same mentality as asking children to “fill in the blank” rather than having a real thoughtful exchange. Rarely, do we go deeper and develop classrooms that are places of multiple listening where children really listen to one another and teachers really listen to children. Listening and conversation is a pathway to excellent curriculum and schools that promote thinking. The educators in Reggio Emilia have some beautiful things to say about the Pedagogy of Listening. Children are natural listeners. What they need is adults who listen and create meaningful respectful conversations.

  27. avatar Flavia mastellone says:

    The teacher of 4 and 5 year olds is exactly correct in focusing on listening skills before writing and reading skills. I have been a preschool teacher and for 20 years have been teaching early childhood education at the college level. Literacy is made up of 4 components: listening, speaking, writing and reading, and they occur in that sequence. It is wrong to negatively judge this teacher, and presume that she is trying to indoctrinate the children to become mindless and obedient. There are many playful and developmentally appropriate ways to help children become good listeners (many exemplified by the RIE philosophy) and it is much more appropriate to work on listening skills rather than those teachers who incorrectly try by direct instruction to teach reading at this age.

  28. avatar Nicole M says:

    You forgot the most important one of all. BE a good listener. I’ve listened to hours upon hours of my children’s sriries, questions and explanations of video games. (Not my favorite subject, but it was important to them.)

    I thought your suggestions were really good. I used a few of them, back in the day. I wish you had been around when my kids were young. They are all grown up now, but good listeners!

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