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 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