Why won’t my child listen to me?! Attention and listening skills under focus

Check hearing skills

Attention and listening skills underpin all other areas of communication development. If you have concerns about your child’s listening or language skills, the first recommendation is to take them for a hearing test. Some parents are surprised when children with difficulties listening are assessed as having perfect hearing. Children can have good hearing, but find listening (i.e. hearing and then processing the information) challenging. Imagine you’re on a walk; you might hear bird song, but it might then take you some time to work out where it is coming from, and which breed of bird is singing (if you have this knowledge!). Alternatively, when you are in a restaurant you might be aware of the background music, but unless you purposefully ‘tune in’ to it you won’t be able to tell what the song is. It’s the processing of sound information that we are actually requesting when we ask a child to ‘listen’.

Stages of development for attention and listening

The ability to pay attention to a certain thing (be it a person, toy or activity) for a period of time also develops gradually. I’m now going to take you through the steps in a child’s development of attention and listening skills, and provide a few ideas to help your child at each stage.

My baby...

·       Looks at my face when I talk (from around 6 months old)

·       Turns towards noisy toys

·       Has very fleeting attention – they won’t be able to hold their attention on you for long!


You can...

·       Get down to the level of your baby and be face-to-face when talking to them

·       Use a range of pitches and intonation to make your voice interesting

·       Sing songs and nursery rhymes to your baby. See here for some examples


My toddler...

·       Can only listen to a small amount of spoken language at a time, and so will respond best when given one instruction at a time

·       If they are engaged in an activity, such as playing, they will have to cut their attention off from everything else



You can...

·       Turn off the TV before talking to your child. Research (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/toddler-language-development_uk_5795e0dbe4b06d7c426d1cb5) has shown that children learn new words better when there is less background noise

·       Make sure you have their attention before talking to them (by saying their name, touching them gently, and waiting for them to stop what they’re doing before talking)

·       Use gesture and clues in the environment to help them (e.g. by looking down at the floor and pointing to their socks when you ask them to pick up their socks).

·       Children at this age start to enjoy listening to stories, as their listening skills are getting better – they will enjoy listening to the same story again and again, and may anticipate familiar words and phrases


Your pre-schooler...

·       can listen to and follow instructions containing slightly more information (around 2-3 pieces of information)

·       will be able to stay focused on an activity they have chosen for slightly longer


You can...

·       provide activities such as drawing or colouring, or building more complex structures with bricks; these help gradually stretch your child’s attention and listening skills and encourage them to persevere with an activity (picture)

New school starters...

·       start to be able to listen whilst doing something else (around age 4-5 - the Early Years Foundation stage curriculum in England has this as a goal for the end of reception year)

·       can listen to and follow an instruction containing two steps (such as ‘put your book away and get your coat’), or 3-4 key pieces of information (such as ‘put the big green brick on the tower’, ‘put the little yellow brick in the box’)

You can...

·       give them opportunities to practice following longer instructions, and staying focused, by sending them on a ‘treasure hunt’ to collect and bring back 2 or 3 items from around the house (‘can you bring me a car, a book and a sock?’)

·       whilst doing activities together, such as sorting out the laundry, keep talking – this is the start of multi-tasking!

·       Make it really clear to your child what you mean when you ask them to listen – i.e. to look at you, have their mouth closed, keep their hands and feet still, and think about your words. When your child shows good listening, praise them specifically on these ‘listening skills’, for example “I can tell you were listening because your mouth was closed and you were looking at me”, “your answer showed me you were really thinking about my words, well done”.   You could even have a ‘listening sticker chart’ and give your child a sticker each time s/he shows one of the ‘listening skills’ – this will help you see if it’s hands still/mouth quiet that your child finds particularly tricky!

Primary school-aged children...

·       Are assumed to be able to sit and listen for up to 15 minutes at a time (depending on their age), understanding and applying the information they are hearing

·       Can stay focused on a spoken story or conversation, and then answer questions on this

You can...

·       Provide regular movement breaks if you are expecting your children to sit and listen – such as planning a trip to the park before a sit down meal, or walking to and from the cinema. This might help minimise fidgeting!

·       Have activities planned, such as colouring books for times when adult talk might dominate, or the child might have to wait – think restaurant meals or train journeys

·       When reading to your child, take time afterwards to talk about the book. You could ask your child questions about the book to check they were listening, or see if they can ask you a question about the story!


Teenagers...and adults!

·       Can start to identify for themselves what helps keep them focused, and what distracts them. Are YouTube videos showing a skill they’re learning helping them to understand and remember it, or just entertaining?!


You can...

·       Show them ways to help keep their focus of attention when listening to large amounts of spoken information – some people find making notes, mind mapping, or having an item to fiddle with helps

·       Remind them to have regular breaks – a study of college students found that the greatest amount of focused listening time students could maintain was 18 minutes.   If your teenager is listening to online lectures, encouraging a quick break every 15 minutes could help them make the most of their revision time