Listen Up! (Tips for teaching listening skills)


We cringe when we hear it; we cringe when we catch ourselves saying it, and yet the phrase is oft repeated in Mommyland, “LISTEN TO ME!”  Toddlers and preschoolers are notorious selective listeners.  They do it because they can.  They know there might be a consequence if they don’t follow directions, but they’re willing to take a gamble.  They’re hoping to get by on a cute face and angelic smile.  Sometimes they’re not listening because they are unwilling to stop a certain behavior that they find funny (like jumping on the couch), but often it’s probably more of a case of your child “not hearing” versus “not listening” when engaged in an interesting activity.

A few weeks into preschool Riley’s teacher pulled me aside and asked whether or not I thought Riley had trouble hearing.  If you’ve ever heard my child talk (and talk and talk and talk), it wouldn’t be your first concern.  I used to get a kick out of the fact that my oldest niece always talked exactly like my sister as a preschooler.  Her vocabulary was unmatched.  And then came Riley.

Having spent 3 years and 9 months exclusively with me, she is officially a mini-me.  Her vocabulary is very well developed.  What can I say?  I talk a lot, and she’s often the only person I talk to all day!  Still, when you hear “hearing loss”, you can’t help but freak out a little.  As I talked quickly and in code to Sean all the way home from preschool pick-up that day, we came to the following conclusion:  She wasn’t listening.  Riley is a very creative child.  While most kids her age are more focused on drawing themselves, other people, or pets, Riley spends an inordinate amount of time creating intricate “designs” (her word) and then challenges me to copy them.  It’s nearly impossible to copy them.  When she’s in the creative zone, there’s no stopping her.  She wants to complete a project start to finish without interruption.

Her preschool runs on a fairly set schedule, which means that they make transitions at certain times.  If Riley isn’t finished with her work, the listening skills are out the window.  Like her Mommy, she NEEDS to finish before moving on.  We practiced saying, “can I please have a few more minutes to finish my work?” instead of pretending not to hear, which is her default.  We also spent a fair amount of time working on coping with making the transition even if she isn’t finished.  Rules are rules.

Listening skills are an invaluable part of life.  Children with good listening skills perform better in school, are more successful in social relationships, and have better frustration tolerance (when you can listen to other options, you are less prone to acting out when faced with frustration).  Listening skills should be taught early.  Below are a few tips to get your child on the road to good listening skills:

1. Listen to them: Life is busy.  Most of us are reachable by various means at any time thanks to the ever-evolving world of the Smartphone.  It can be hard to unplug and focus.  If we want our kids to listen to us, we have to listen to them.   Easier said than done.  Sean and I have a checks and balances system going on.  If I’m checking email and tuning out the rest he will say, “Mommy, what do you think?” to bring me back.  If he sneaks his iPhone to the table, I sneak it away from him and put it with the laptops.  There will be times when you have to take an important call or cruise through some email while you are with your kids, but during meals, baths, stories, and playtime keep your focus on them. They won’t always require an overwhelming amount of attention, but right now they do.  Give it to them while you can.

2. Eye Contact: One of the most important skills you can teach your child is making eye contact when talking to others.  Preschoolers and toddlers tend to avert their gaze quickly, often due to constant distractions.  Little kids also have BIG feelings, and if they think that they are in trouble or feel like you are mad at them, or if they tend to feel shy, they are likely to look away.  It’s hard to listen when you’re staring out the window watching the birds or searching the room for an interesting toy.  Cue them often. When Riley is in the zone and I need to tell her something, I look right into her eyes and say, “Riley, I’m sorry to interrupt but I need you to look at me for one minute please”.  Kids respond better to positive requests, so try to avoid commands whenever possible. That said, sometimes they make poor choices and you need to get their attention fast.  The important thing is to teach them to look.

3. Meet them at their level: The world is a big place to toddlers and preschoolers.  It’s much easier for a child to listen, and hear, what an adult is saying when the adult kneels down and meets the child at eye level. This ties in with #1 and #2 as well.  The best way to model appropriate listening skills is to get on your child’s level, make eye contact, and listen to them too.  Many parents instinctively kneel down to greet other children, but some do not.  Meeting them where they are increases their comfort level and encourages them to make eye contact and listen. It feels less threatening.

4. Use a calm voice: The best way to get your kids to tune out and stop listening is to raise your voice.  I’ve seen it happen over and over again.  Frustrated parents get down low, grab their kids, and then start yelling.  I know the feeling.  Loud, angry voices tend to scare kids, and scared kids are unable to listen.  Do what you have to do to keep your emotions in check (I’ve been known to run upstairs to “grab a sweatshirt”) and then approach your child with a calm demeanor.  Modeling a calm approach teaches your child that people are better able to listen to them when they use a calm voice.

5. Avoid Sarcasm: We live in a sarcastic world.  I know this because, at times, I’m a part of it.  Sometimes sarcasm is a useful tool.  It can provide a humorous icebreaker.  But sarcasm, by definition, is hurtful.  Toddlers and preschoolers might not understand the subtext of your comment when said sarcastically, but they do understand the tone.  They know that it’s used in frustration.  They know that it hurts.  Use of sarcasm will shut your child down; it will not promote listening. The same goes for rhetorical questions.  “How many times do I have to tell you to…..?” doesn’t correct a behavior.  It just makes a child feel bad, and possibly causes him/her to shut down.

6. Repeat back: Any strategy used in anger is likely to backfire.  In fact, many young kids laugh when their parents become upset.  It’s not that they think you’re funny, it’s that anxiety sometimes manifests as laughter in young children. When asked, by a calm parent, to repeat back a set of directions kids are forced to stop and think about what was said, and ask for clarification if necessary.  Remember, simple rules and explanations are easier to retain and follow.

7. Play listening games: The best way to teach toddlers and preschoolers is to keep things fun.  No one wants to hear a lecture, but especially not the youngest segment of our population.  Joint Story Telling: I’ve used this in the therapeutic environment for years to help kids join and feel more comfortable, but it also works well with young, imaginative minds.  Start a story by making up the first line (“once upon a time” is always a crowd pleaser) then create the story with your child by alternating who says each line.  You have to make eye contact and listen to one another in order to make the story work.  It’s fun, engaging, and helps your child practice active listening skills.  Simon Says: This preschool classic is great for helping your child watch and listen.  They have to pay close attention to Simon’s movements AND listen for the cue, “Simon Says”.  Red Light/Green Light: Do your best stop light impersonation and start the road race!  This fun game also requires looking (for the stop light to face forward) and listening (for the cue, “green light”).  If they fail to stop they start from the beginning again.  What time is it Mr. Tiger?: This lesser known preschool game is great fun for kids.  The goal of the game is to get from the starting line to the tiger’s den.  They ask the question, “what time is it Mr. Tiger?” and then have to listen for the answer, and follow directions (3 o’clock = 3 steps forward).  ***These are all great group games, but can also be played with just 1 or 2 kids as well.

Listening skills can take time and patience to teach, but are incredibly important to your child long term.  Take a deep breath, get down to their level, listen to them, and calmly teach them how to listen.  You’ll be surprised to learn how much they pay attention when you think they’re not listening.

Image credit: Pexels


About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)