Kids Not Listening? Four Things You Can Do Right Now To Get Them To Tune In

In my professional life, I’ve consulted and advised a variety of people — parents, teachers, care-givers.  Now and then I even consult myself.  My “mother self” becomes frustrated with something, and soon, the “consultant” part of my brain steps in to remind my “mother self” of what I already know.  Such has been the case this week.  I have found myself, time and time again, wondering why I’m not getting the response I want from my boys.  Too often, I feel like they’re just not listening to me.  And then the consultant in me steps onto the stage in my mind and let’s me know why. 

Listening is a skill that involves two parties: the speaker and the listener.  Often, when we feel someone isn’t listening, we look only to that party.  And that seems like a valid response, because listening is a learned skill, and one that needs to be taught directly, and practiced (read more about how I teach kids to be good listeners).  But that ignores the other half of the equation.  Listening is also — at times perhaps more so — about how we talk to themHere are four ways you can be sure to be an effective speaker when talking to young children.

  1. Get Close.  I’ll confess that I sometimes call out orders to my boys from another room, and then wonder why they aren’t “listening”.  While it may be humanly possible for a child to hear you from thirty feet away, they often won’t be able to focus in on what you are saying from the kitchen with pots and pans clanging, as they play with toys on the living room floor, with Raffi playing in the background, and Maggie the dog walking and panting behind them.  They are still learning to selectively attend — meaning to focus on what they intend to focus on and screen out other distracting sources of sensory input.  So if you really want a young child to hear what you are saying, step right up to her, get down on her level, make eye contact, even put your arm around her or a hand on her shoulder.  A child is much more likely to hear you if you come into her sphere, than if you try to drag her into yours.
  2. Keep it Short.  It’s tempting to rattle off the list of morning to-dos: get dressed, make your bed, eat your breakfast, brush your teeth, and feed the dog.  But a young child can generally only process and remember one to two commands at a time.  Additionally, a young child is more likely to comply when you give positive feedback with each task’s completion.
  3. Keep it Sweet.  You’ve heard the saying, “You can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar“, right?  While I’m not sure why you want to attract flies, the principle is true.  If you engage a child by using his name, keeping a soft, kind voice, and employing enthusiastic and encouraging facial expressions and body language he’s much more likely to be receptive to your message than if you turn it into a power struggle, nag, or threaten.  All that vinegar’s a big turn-off.
  4. Repeat.  There’s this funny thing we do as adults when we feel children aren’t listening.  We keep repeating ourselves in the same way, only with more and more frustration as we know we are “being ignored”.  Repetition helps, but if you really want to be sure a child is listening, ask the child to do the repeating.  You could ask him to directly  repeat what you just said, or you could rephrase the instruction into a question: “Now tell me, what are you going to do when you finish getting dressed?”

So if you find that the children you love and teach don’t seem to be listening, think about what you could be doing on your end, as the speaker, that might help them be more successful!

Top Photo by Simona Balint.
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Filed under Article, social skills

16 responses to “Kids Not Listening? Four Things You Can Do Right Now To Get Them To Tune In

  1. Jennifer Dobson

    Hi Amanda,

    I was excited about this post and shared it with my teacher friends on Facebook. (Your tips are so simple and yet I find myself making things too complicated or expecting different results even though I haven’t changed ANYthing…alas I digress! lol)

    Anyway, a friend who works with special education students asked if this ‘strategy’ would work well for her. I felt rather unqualified to answer this question – to be honest, I have little experience in that area – so I thought I’d bring it back to the source and ask what YOUR thoughts were! 🙂

    I look forward to hearing from you!

    • notjustcute

      Thanks for sharing, Jennifer! I am not a special education professional, so I don’t want to attempt to sound like an “expert” in that field, but I have worked with children with special needs within mainstreaming programs. It’s been my experience that children with special needs respond particularly well to this system. Many may struggle with sensory integration or attending, so following these steps help with that. Of course, as with any child, be aware of what they respond best to. Some children, particularly with sensory issues won’t want that “hand on the shoulder”, but getting close and low (sometimes the child may need an extra reminder to “look at your eyes”), keeping it short, keeping it sweet, and asking them to repeat should help them listen. I’m sure the real special education experts could give more info, but this system has worked for me. I’d love to see how it works for your friend!

    • Is there a teacher group you like to converse with on Facebook? If so, can you let me know the link. I would love to joing in.
      Jo-Anne DeGiacomo-Petrie

      • Jennifer Dobson

        Sorry Joanne! I totally missed your comment! …I do belong to several groups/fan pages on FB including Scholastic Teachers, Lesson Planet, Edutopia, The Teacher’s Corner, TeachHUB, and of course some of my fav. blogs/websites like Teach Preschool, PaintCutPaste, Irresistible Ideas, No Time For Flash Cards, etc. where I interact with fellow educators and moms. Mostly though, I keep up with teachers I’ve met and actually gotten to know (i.e. friended each other) THROUGH these other groups/fan pages. Hope that makes sense! 🙂

        *I’ve searched for Not Just Cute, but haven’t been able to find it. Didn’t know if there just wasn’t a page or I’m just that FB/technologically impaired! LOL

  2. Yes! You´re so right!! It took me a looong time to discover I had to keep it short… specially when asking him to complete a task. Thank you for this close, short and sweet post. I´ll repeat it to myself!!

    • notjustcute

      I can be a bit wordy myself (as my longer posts can attest). Sometimes it takes extra practice for some of us to learn to figure out exactly what we want to say, and use fewer words to get there! But, particularly when giving instructions, cutting right to the chase seems to work best!

  3. what good advice, as usual. thank you.

    my issue is my son and I are both multi-taskers (multi-cognitive a doctor told me once) (and my son’s even worse than me which is good for a male) but then he gets distracted. and tries to distract me. and I have to remind him (and remind myself to do it nicely) “let’s focus on one thing at a time”

    I think people want to attract flies to get them out of their house. its like a fly catcher. though vinegar works for fruit flies pretty well 😉

    • notjustcute

      Thanks for clarifying the fly issue! 🙂 Multitasking certainly has its benefits, but if there are problems with communication, that’s one of the first places to take a look! If we really want to listen, or really want to be heard, we have to slow down and make eye contact. I’m a multitasker too, so I write this largely for my own reminder! 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  4. Great advice! I also find that a child’s brain needs to switch gears. Imagine always hearing the same voice in the same tone? Mixing it up is always helpful and commands attention. In my classroom when I need children to attend I often do a clapping slapping pattern and wait for them to quiet and join in. When they are engaged and stop talking (which takes seconds), I fizzle out the pattern I am clapping and slapping then give my message followed by asking the children to give a thumbs up if they heard the message. Sure it takes more energy, but it works! If a child does not “thumbs up” it is a signal to me they did not hear my voice – I then ask myself why? It is important to know the” whys” and not assume there is disrespect to blame. Maybe the child has processing issues, feels ill, or has a lot going on in his/her head.
    Through experience, I have learned kids want to please their teachers – especially the younger ones. We as the adults in their lives should not take their behavior personally. We need to help get to the root like a plant so the rest of them can be nourished to flourish.

  5. Pingback: Getting Your Kids to Tune In | Song and Season

  6. Oh, this post really struck a chord with me! I am constantly frustrated with my three year old son for not listening to me, and not being “heard” is one of my biggest pet peeves. These tips are great! I have started using the “repeat” tactic-making my son repeat or rephrase what I asked him to take care of, and it definitely helps.

  7. Rachel

    So yelling is not as effective as I thought? That must mean that by getting frustrated and yelling LOUDER, that’s not going to work either? All kidding aside, these are all things I know, so why don’t I practice them more often? Sometimes we all need a little reminder, kids as well as adults. 🙂 Thanks!

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