Why Listening Can be So Difficult for Kids

Have you ever wondered “How can I get my child to listen to me?” or “Why is my child struggling to listen to the teacher at school?” or “How many times do I need to say, “Pay attention”? 

Well, if it makes you feel better, this seemingly easy task of listening is really quite complex!  

What is Really Involved in “Listening”

At first glance, parents and teachers may confuse hearing with listening. Hearing is a sense that helps you receive sounds and for those who do not have hearing loss, the process is innate.  

Listening is a more learned skill that involves not only making meaning of sounds but is also a social process—you are thinking about others and what’s going on around you at the time. Listening occurs in a context—kids will have different listening skills at a birthday party, in the classroom, when being asked to do something fun or not fun, and the list goes on.  

Taking an even deeper look at listening reveals that it requires a lot from the brain and the body, including sensory processing (integrating all of the body senses), emotional regulation (managing emotions), executive functioning (self-control of the brain and body) and perspective taking (thinking of others, what they are saying, and why they are saying it).  

Being able to fully listen requires putting all of one’s attention on the person speaking. For a child in school, this often means filtering out distractions such as another child talking, a classroom fan or heater, or noises coming from the hall. If the child isn’t fully interested in what the teacher is saying, it becomes even more of a challenge to ignore other sounds or visual distractions.  

Likewise, some children have difficulty pulling their attention away from sensations within their own body. Perhaps they’re hungry or thirsty or they have a headache or itchy skin. These physical feelings may be perceived as more compelling than the speaker’s words and can easily interfere with listening.  

Issues with emotional regulation can also get in the way of listening. Perhaps the child had an argument with a friend, is mad at their sibling sitting at the dinner table near them, or is excited about a playdate happening after school. The emotions stirred up by events in the child’s life may feel overwhelming and can pull the child’s attention inward and away from the person speaking. When kids are in fight, flight, or freeze mode or preoccupied with worries, sadness, or other big feelings, their brains are not “online” for listening. Their energy is in the limbic system, and they have trouble attending to information that requires their “thinking brain” and frontal lobe. 

Children who struggle with executive function are also prone to difficulty with listening. Paying attention to another person involves using the brain to block out extraneous information and prioritize the speaker’s words above all else. The child may also need to multitask or switch focus in order to listen, something that happens frequently during transitions throughout the school day and at home. This becomes even harder when a child is asked to leave something pleasurable, like having fun outside, to go indoors and focus on math problems.

In addition, listening requires the challenge of perspective taking (thinking of others and what they are saying). Although many people do this naturally, for others it requires conscious and sustained effort to pay attention to what someone else is saying and what matters to another person. In some cases, the child may not be aware that their unexpected movements or behavior may be confusing or distracting to others, which also demonstrates a lack of perspective taking.   

Kids who have lagging skills in sensory regulation, emotional, or executive functioning or social thinking are likely to struggle more with the complex skill of listening. Not to mention that the task we’re asking them to do (“pay attention”) is an abstract request that needs to be broken down. What we are really asking them to do is to turn on parts of their body (their brain, eyes,  ears and heart) and turn off other parts of their body (their mouth, body movement, internal thoughts about other things). In addition, some adults expect children to not only listen with their ears, but to stop whatever they are doing and show that they are listening with their entire body. This adult-defined expectation may include standing completely still, which is difficult (if not impossible) for most children. 

So how do we help? 

Teach Whole Body Listening 

A listening tool developed by speech pathologist Susanne Poulette Truesdale in 1990 makes listening skills more concrete and doable for kids. “Whole body listening” assigns roles to different parts of the body, giving children helpful guidance on what to do physically while listening. For example, some body parts (arms, legs, and mouth) try to stay calm and still to support listening. The eyes look toward the person who is speaking, and the brain tries to focus on the speaker and what they’re saying. The heart was added to the list of body parts for whole body listening to represent empathy for the speaker. This is important when we are teaching social communication and perspective taking. The heart is focused (in most cases) on caring about the person speaking and what is being said. In some situations, the listener may not care about the speaker, or what is being said, but listening without interrupting, changing the topic or being “rude” in other ways is still a goal.  

Supporting the Social/Emotional Side of Listening 

Listening is a huge part of relationships and building friendships. It makes people feel heard, validated, and connected. It can be one of the greatest gifts in a relationship to give your full attention and listening. With the increase in stimuli, media, distractions, and virtual communication, some children lack opportunities to practice this critical life skill. Many teens and even younger kids communicate with peers almost entirely through text, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media. To compound matters, kids who show lagging skills in listening will often retreat to less face-to-face communication (e.g., reading a book or checking emails at recess, replacing conversations with texts, and focusing more on documenting an experience for social media than experiencing the event itself).  

Here are some suggestions for strengthening communication skills:

  • For younger kids, play games that build listening skills, like telephone (whispering the same message from one person to the next).
  • Play games that develop self-regulation and listening skills, including Freeze Dance and Red Light, Green Light.
  • Sing songs to reinforce whole body listening vocabulary. For instance, in the song “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” substitute whole body listening vocabulary of “eyes and ears, mouth and hands,” etc.
  • Read books about listening, including Liam Labradoodle Learns Whole Body Listening (Truesdale, 2016), Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns to Listen (Howard Binkow, 2006), Whole Body Listening Larry at Home, Whole Body Listening Larry at School (Sautter and Wilson, 2011). Other children’s books show listening situations that can also be discussed and used as teaching tools.
  • For all ages, role-play various scenarios, such as a classroom lesson, birthday party, and dinner table conversation and focus on the type of listening behavior expected for each one.  Discuss and act out what is “expected” and “unexpected” during conversations or listening sessions and how it makes others feel in both situations.

Supporting the Executive Functioning/Academic Side of Listening 

In order to obtain information from a teacher or group activity, the first step is to be able to focus, attend, and listen. Without this first filter of listening, information will not be processed or retained. 

Listening skills are essential not only in communication skills but also academics, and this has been widely recognized and adapted as part of the Common Core Standards for grades K-12. Kindergarten students, for example, are expected to “follow agreed-upon rules for discussions (e.g., listening to others and taking turns speaking about the topics and texts under discussion).” These standards are a measure by which teachers and therapists evaluate students and develop goals and lessons to provide extra support when needed. 

Here are some practical tools to support listening:

  • Use a visual tool! Put up a wall poster of Whole Body Listening Larry (Sautter and Wilson, 2011) for in-the-moment talks about listening when situations arise during the day. This is especially helpful in the mornings to help kids stay organized as they start their day. 
  • Use a Social Behavior Map (Winner, 2007) to map out and discuss the expected and unexpected listening behaviors for various situations and how these behaviors might make others feel.
  • Provide photos or drawings to show what whole body listening looks like in different situations (e.g., at the dinner table, during reading time, at recess). Encourage kids to “match the picture” (Ward and Jacobsen).
  • Prime the child or student for what listening should look like prior to engaging in a particular situation, such as at a school assembly, at soccer practice, or during group activities. Post a visual of whole body listening in a common area and review the hidden rules that may be unfamiliar to the child.
  • Accommodations in the classroom may include limiting visual and auditory distractions near the speaker and listener, preferential seating, predetermined nonverbal cues to get attention (e.g., tap on desk, hand on shoulder), sensory supports such as keeping hands busy by holding a fidget, doodling, squeezing hands together, or sitting on hands. Using a theraband around the legs of a chair, ankle weights, a pressure vest, or a lap pad can also make listening easier for some children.
  • Incorporate vocabulary into everyday activities and give praise when you observe your child listening in an expected way (e.g., “thanks for waiting for me to finish my thought before answering me” or “I see that you are keeping your body still while your brother is telling his story”).
  • Help your child practice mindfulness during various activities, including watching/looking, sitting, walking, and listening. Talk to your child about what it means to be mindful (paying attention with intention or on purpose). Help them attend to each body part involved with whole body listening and introduce a mindfulness activity that focuses on that body part (e.g., focus on mindful, still hands; listening to a specific sound; or practice a mindful, compassionate activity). Point out examples of mindfulness and how it relates to listening. (Learn more about mindfulness at www.mindfulschools.org or greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition.)
  • Last but not least is to practice and model whole body listening ourselves. Call out and apologize when you forget to use your whole body listening skills (e.g., texting while a child is talking to you). 

Both kids and adults can benefit from whole body listening at school, work, in the community, and at home. Fortunately, whole body listening is a flexible tool that can be adapted based on individual needs and abilities. For example, modifications can easily be made for those who have difficulty keeping their arms and legs still or making direct eye contact. The process of adapting whole body listening to suit a particular person’s needs also provides a chance to discuss that person’s learning style and to help them develop self-advocacy skills. 

Along with the activities described in this article, you can find additional suggestions for building whole body listening in my books Whole Body Listening Larry at Home and Whole Body Listening Larry at School.  If you are interested in more practical tips on social and emotional learning, check out my book Make Social Learning Stick!

References

Branstetter, R. (2013) The Everything Parent’s Guide to Executive Functioning Disorder: Strategies to Help Your Child Achieve the Time-Management Skills, Focus, and Organization Needed to Succeed in School and Life.  Avon, MA; Adams Media.

Koegel, L., Matos-Fredeen, R., Lang, R. & Koegel, R. (2011). “Interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders in inclusive school settings.” Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, doi:10.1016/j.cbpra.2010.11.003. 

Sautter, E. (2016). “Taking a deeper look at whole body listening: It’s a tool not a rule.” www.socialthinking.com. 

Sautter, E. (2014). Make social learning stick! Lenexa, KS: AAPC Publishing. 

Sautter, E. and Wilson, K. (2011). Whole body listening Larry at school and Whole body listening Larry at home. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc. 

Truesdale, S.P. (2013). “Whole body listening updated.” Advance for Speech-Language Pathologists & Audiologists, Volume 23, No. 3, 8-10. 

Truesdale, S.P. (1990). “Whole body listening: Developing active auditory skills.” Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. Volume 21, July 1990, 183-184. 

Winner, M.G. (2007). Social behavior mapping: Connecting behavior, emotions and consequences across the day. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.

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