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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship while building essential listening skills in your child.
Your child’s success depends upon their ability to listen and understand what you and others are communicating. Listening skills can support your child’s ability to engage in healthy relationships, to focus, and to learn. For example, children must listen to their teacher if they are to follow directions and successfully navigate expectations at school. Not surprisingly, better listening skills are associated with school success.
Children ages 5-10 are in the process of learning about themselves, their strengths and limitations, why they feel the way they do, and how they relate to others through their interactions with you, their teachers, and their peers. This is a critical time to teach and practice listening skills.
Yet, everyone faces challenges when it comes to listening. With screens, including mobile devices, engaging people for hours a day, opportunities to interact with your child and exercise listening skills may be missed. Listening skills require the use of a number of other important skills like impulse control, focused attention, empathy, and nonverbal and verbal communication.
For parents or those in a parenting role, the key to many challenges, like building essential listening skills, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s needs are met. The steps below include specific and practical strategies to prepare you in growing this vital skill.
Whether it’s your five-year-old continuing to play when you’ve told them you need to leave (for the third time), your seven-year-old not listening to your safety instructions and taking off in a crowd with a friend, or your nine-year-old daydreaming during their teacher’s instructions and not knowing how to do their homework, establishing regular ways to practice listening skills can prepare your child for family, school, and life success.
Today, in the short term, teaching listening skills can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other that you have the competence to manage your relationships and responsibilities;
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage; and
- language and literacy fluency.
Tomorrow, in the long term, working on effective listening skills with your child
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your child cultivate effective listening skills, a critical life skill. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about listening skills by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to how they feel when they struggle with focus and listening so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership also comes a greater responsibility for solving their own problems);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership;
- will be working in collaboration with you to deepen your ability to communicate with one another; and
- will grow their self-control (adding to their ability to focus attention) as well as empathy and problem-solving skills.
Consider what challenges your child in their ability to listen effectively. Your active listening in this moment will begin modeling the very kinds of skills you are attempting to build. You might start by asking:
- “Do you feel listened to? When and by whom?”
- “How do you know that the person is truly listening to you?”
- “Are there times when someone is not listening to you?”
- “How does that make you feel?”
During a family meal, explore the question: “What does it take to listen well?” Allow each family member to respond. Model listening by allowing each person to complete their thoughts without interruption or judgment.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Children are learning how to engage in healthy relationships through your loving interactions, which includes learning how to listen effectively. Skill building takes intentional practice. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is working hard to learn.
- Five and six-year-olds can have limited attention spans and thrive on encouragement. They might not listen well and act too busy when they’re playing, particularly if they don’t like what you are saying.
- Seven-year-olds need consistency and may not be able to listen in the midst of transitions or routine changes, because they require that stability.
- Eight-year-olds are more skilled at cooperation, which means they’ll be listening more to friends and adults. Dialogue with children at this age reaches a new level of sophistication.
- Nine-year-olds can be highly competitive and critical of themselves and others. They may worry about who is in the “in” and “out” crowds and where they fit in friendship groups, which can impact their ability to listen with empathy.
- Ten-year-olds are interested in figuring out the thoughts and feelings of others. There is much more of a give-and-take in friendships with listening, talking, and compromising.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Model listening while interacting with your child. Modeling listening skills can be one of the greatest teaching tools.
- Set a goal for yourself. Pick a time of day when you know that you and your child will be talking. Then, notice your body language. Ask yourself: “What is my body communicating, and how am I demonstrating that I’m listening?”
- Listen for thought and feeling. In addition to listening to the content of what your child says, also see if you can identify the unspoken thought and feeling behind the content, in other words, the context.
- Children need their parents’ attention to thrive. Why not build a sacred time into your routine when you are fully present to listen to what your child has to tell you? Turn your phone off. Set a timer if you need.
- Learn listening strategies together by trying them out.
- Demonstrate poor listening and good listening. It helps to show what poor listening and good listening look like. Start by having one person act out what poor listening skills look like. Exaggerate and make it funny! Then, reflect and ask questions like: “What did you notice about their body language?” Next, have another person model good listening skills. Then, reflect and ask questions like: “What did they do? How did their body change?”
- Actively listen. Try out active listening in which one person listens to fully understand what the speaker is saying and waits until the speaker is finished talking before responding. A response could be a simple “I get it.” Make eye contact and practice placing your full focus on the speaker.
- Paraphrase. Try out paraphrasing by echoing back to the speaker a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. You might start by saying, “I heard you say that…”
- Seek clarification. Try seeking clarification. Particularly if you are listening with the intent of learning something from the speaker, seeking clarification on details is important to make certain you understand. Practice seeking clarification by asking questions like, “What did you mean when you said you weren’t happy this morning? What happened?”
- Practice questioning and commenting with empathy. Instead of responding to a speaker with your own experiences, focus solely on the content of what has been communicated. For example, your child might say, “Today Mrs. Smith started a new project. We are going to be building fairy tree houses. I can’t wait.” Instead of responding with something like: “I built a birdhouse when I was in school,” which takes the focus away from your child, you might say, “Sounds like you are excited about this project. What else besides sticks do we need to collect?” This empathetic pattern of speaking and listening requires practice. Your modeling will make a difference in your child’s comfort with this style of communication.1
Use the “Me Too!” rule so that each person can complete a thought without interruption.1 Agree with family members that when someone is saying something that is true for them as well, they make the “Me too!” sign – shake your thumb pointing back at yourself and pinkie pointing out at the other person.
Step 3. Practice to Grow to Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily conversations can be opportunities for your child to practice vital new skills if you seize those chances. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard to practice essential listening skills.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s sense that they can do a task or skill successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
- Initially, your child may need active support to encourage listening skills. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate listening. You could say, “Show me how you can listen at dinner without interrupting.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I noticed how you listened fully to your sister when she was upset. That’s so helpful to her.”
- There are a number of games that require strong listening skills. Offer practice by playing these games as a family.
- Charades (non-competitive). Expand categories and think of animals, insects, or vacation destinations to act out for one another with no teams and the simple enjoyment of nonverbal acting and guessing. This game strengthens how people attend to body language, an essential part of listening.
- Who Done It? Mystery lovers will enjoy this game. It teaches skills by carefully listening and communicating information in an accurate and concise way. It also stirs a child’s creative thinking. Pretend that your precious pet turtle was stolen by someone. Describe what that person looked like taking cues from a variety of people around you – “He wore a plaid flannel shirt and had a bald head. He was carrying the turtle in one hand and a flashlight in the other.” You must include 10 details about the appearance of the turtle napper. Try repeating those 10 details twice for your listener. The listener must be able to repeat all 10 descriptors in order to solve the mystery.
- Cell-phone. Remember the old game “Telephone”? It’s as effective at teaching listening and communication skills as it always has been. Place children in a circle. The first child whispers a short sentence in the next child’s ear. Each child passes on what he heard. The last child reveals the message. Giggles ensue when the message invariably changes from start to finish.
- Cooperative (Ghost) Story Telling. Gather in a circle. The leader establishes the rules to get the game started. Let the group know that each person will have a turn to contribute one sentence to the ghost story. Pass around a talking stick and let participants know that only the one who possesses the stick may talk. The others must listen carefully in order to build upon the story. The leader can begin with the classic line, “It was a dark, stormy night and…” This requires no setup and no materials. Children will delight in the creativity and imagination involved. This is also a wonderful transition game that can be used on the spur of the moment when waiting for a next activity. For younger children, simply passing the story along adding one sentence at a time is enough to excite and involve a small group.
- Read together. When you read stories together, you engage in a listening activity that can be deeply connecting for both of you. Be sure and involve your child in selecting the book they want to read.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you are developing your child’s skills in listening, and you are allowing them to practice. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to be successful and helping them grow in their listening skills.
- Ask key questions to actively see how your child’s listening is going. You can ask questions like:
- “Tell me about your lesson in math class today — what were some of your teacher’s instructions for your homework?”
- “Seems like you were having a difficult time not interrupting when your friend was talking to you. What were some of the struggles you had? What would have helped you to actively listen in that situation?”
- Learn about your child’s development. Each new age will present different social challenges. Being informed regularly about what developmental milestones your child is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different listening strategies can offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
- Engage in further practice. Play listening games to reinforce skills. Create more opportunities to practice when all is calm.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2 for listening. Third, if you feel that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
When your child does not listen to you or is clearly focusing elsewhere, you might be tempted to scold or nag, but be sure and give them additional chances. Everyone loses their focus sometimes. Get down on their level, eye to eye, and review what you said again to help them refocus their attention. End with a smile or hug to reinforce your connection.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working hard to practice their listening skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way in promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. “You followed the directions of your coach during the game – love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you start picking up your toys the first time I ask you, I will let you have more screen time” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “I see you started picking up your toys right when I asked. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your child is listening to their sister’s long-winded story, for example, a short, specific call-out is all that’s needed: “I noticed you listened with focus to your sister’s story. I know that makes her feel cared about. That’s so important.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like no interruptions – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, if your child makes up for ignoring you by apologizing, sincerely recognize that effort. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps as ways to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.