While trying to wrangle two preschoolers who often have “the sillies,” the daily struggle is real. Don’t get me wrong; I love their joy, the way they love each other, and that laughter fills the house. But sometimes it feels as though no one is listening to me and my only option is to raise my voice, which I really don’t like to do. Instead of yelling, I know I need to get close and down on their level, sometimes reaching out to touch their shoulder or hold their hand. Simply being near them and making eye contact helps them snap out of “the sillies.” Once I pull their attention away from the shrieks and giggles, I realize that the key word isn’t listening—it’s hearing. They just didn’t hear me.
Hearing and listening are two very different things. Hearing is the involuntary and automatic act by which we detect noise and vibrations in our environment. Listening is the voluntary act that requires us to make sense of the sounds we hear. Once my children hear me, I then need them to listen. Whether it’s a question, instructions, or simply sharing information, it’s important that I can communicate to them and that they listen so they understand.
But are young children inherently great listeners? Not so much. I’m not sure any human is inherently great at it. But there are ways we can train ourselves to be better listeners. Developing listening skills in young kids is important because it’s an integral part of the communication process. Listening skills allow us to function properly in society, in academic settings, and in relationships with others. Good listening skills help us:
- Develop language skills.
- Build a better vocabulary.
- Speak properly and coherently.
- Interact more positively with others with fewer misunderstandings.
- Receive and understand important information.
One of the major components of being a good listener is being able to control your attention. Filtering out distractions and listening for a long period of time can be difficult for a young child, but practice and specific activities can help. While this skill will certainly be practiced at school, there are things you can do at home to help, too. Here are some tips for helping your child develop their listening skills:
- Interact with your child and model good listening. Put away the phone, turn off the television, and remove distractions so you can give yourself time to sit and talk, play, or sing with your child. When you demonstrate what it looks like to pay attention, make eye contact, and listen to your child, they have a wonderful role model to follow. After they say something, rather than replying with a simple comment like, “Oh, really?” or “I see,” try asking further questions to develop a conversation with them. Prompt them to explain their experiences more, and then share your experiences, too. Making connections to their stories will demonstrate that you are actively listening. These conversational techniques will also help your child as they develop socially.
- Use songs, rhyming, and sounds. Learning songs and rhymes by heart is a really great way to develop listening skills. Rhythm and rhyme stimulate our brain, which helps with our auditory memory. Once you and your child have learned songs and rhymes, repeat them! I like to start a line from a song or even a book that we have read several times and stop before completing the whole line. My kids know that my pause is their opportunity to fill in the blank. For example, I say, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a…” and my kids respond with “wall.” This practice encourages them to listen to the exact words that are spoken. For more information and tips on rhyming with your kids, check out the Rhyme Time: Building Language Skills in Young Children blog post.
- Integrate art. If you have an art lover at home like I do, this might be your go-to strategy for working on listening skills! Get out the art materials and a blank piece of paper. Come up with a scene to describe to your little one. Their job is to draw it! Slowly describe the picture to your child and have them draw it based on your description. It’s important to give them the description in small chunks so they are able to process the details. In this activity, allow and encourage them to ask clarifying questions. The simple fact that they are asking questions is a sign of attentive listening!
- Play games. Traditional games like Simon Says, I Spy, and Traffic Lights (sometimes called Red Light, Green Light) are good listening games. When we go out to ride bikes or scooters in the neighborhood, my kids like to zoom ahead of me on the sidewalk. We play Traffic Lights so they can enjoy racing ahead but I can also keep an eye on them. At restaurants and in the car, we play I Spy, which encourages my little ones to listen carefully to answers and questions as they work to identify a mystery object. I love playing these games with my kids because they are having fun without realizing that they’re developing their listening skills.
- Give instructions in 2- or 3-part chunks. Chunking is a strategy used to break up long strings of information into units or chunks. With small bits of information, our brains are better able to commit them to memory. It’s basically like reading an email with a bullet-point format, which is far easier for our brains to handle. So for kids, present information to them in the same way. Prioritize the information you want to share with them, and stick to 2 or 3 chunks or steps, keeping it short and sweet. For example, when I give my 3-year-old instructions, I use this method. I might say, “First, put your shoes away. Then, go potty. Last, pick a book.” Then I repeat it with just key words (“Shoes, potty, book”), and she repeats it back to me.
- Read stories together and ask questions. Reading aloud to our kids is one of the most important times we have with them. Reading aloud to kids gives us a chance to connect, despite whatever challenges the day may have brought. There are also clear cognitive benefits that show listening to read-alouds strengthens the part of the brain associated with visual imagery, story comprehension, and word meaning. For some tips on how to best utilize your reading time with your kids, check out 5 Ways to Make the Most Out of Read-Alouds with Young Children.
Listening is one of the most important skills for kids, and even adults, to master. It doesn’t necessarily come easy, though. With these activities and intentional practice, you can help your child develop their listening skills, which will impact many areas of their life—and yours!
By Caitlin Hardeman, former third through sixth grade teacher specializing in English Language Arts.