Listen to an audio file of this tool.
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 4-year-old child.
Your child’s healthy development depends upon their ability to listen and understand what you and others are communicating. Listening skills support your child’s ability to engage in healthy relationships, to focus, and to learn. For example, children need to successfully communicate with you and understand what you are saying to them for their very survival. They are busy learning new words, phrases, and sentences, so your conversations are supporting their language and brain development.
Now that they are becoming more independent, they need to listen to your instructions to stay safe. As in infancy, each time you are responsive to your child’s cries and needs showing them love and care, they feel understood and learn about the two-way nature of communication. In preschool and beyond, 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.
Three- and four-year-olds come to better understand themselves through their interactions with you and other caregivers. They are in the process of learning their strengths and limitations, why they feel the way they do, and how they relate to others. Parents and those in a parenting role share in this learning and exploration. This is a critical time to teach and practice listening skills.
Yet, we all face challenges when it comes to listening. With screens, including mobile devices, engaging us for hours of our day, opportunities to interact eye-to-eye 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 who serve 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.
Children learn about who they are and how they relate to others through sensitive, caring interactions with you. These interactions impact their ability to listen, to communicate effectively, to learn about and manage their feelings, and to trust in you as a caregiver. Now that your child is preschool age, highly curious, and exploring, they need to be able to follow your instructions to stay safe in your home, the neighborhood, and their classroom. Your focus on listening and communicating with your child will lay a critical foundation of trusting interactions.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to listen 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 language and literacy competence;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, 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. Getting to Know and Understand Your Child’s Input
Children, ages three to four, are highly active and exploratory, seeking moments for imaginative play. They now can view themselves as a whole person with a body, mind, and spirit but are still learning to identify their big feelings. Your child is gaining skill and ability in cooperating with others and working through conflict with pretend play. Your effort to learn from your child will create empathetic interactions that promote healthy listening skills in you and your child. In becoming sensitive to the nuances of your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you
- are responding to their needs;
- are growing their trust in you and their sense of healthy relationships;
- are growing motivation for you and your child to work together;
- are deepening your ability to communicate with one another;
- are growing your own and, simultaneously, their self-control (to calm down when upset and focus their attention); and
- are growing empathy and problem-solving skills.
Consider how your child reacts when they are upset, angry, or frustrated. How do they show you? Children at this age may cry, yell, hide, or pout. Their upset may last longer than an older child’s because they are still learning to understand their feelings and deal with them constructively. Check out some of the ways in which you can respond to an upset child that promote emotional competence.
- If a child is crying, offer comfort items like a favorite teddy bear or a blanket. Do not attempt to talk anything through when a child is highly upset. Focus on calming down first.
- If a child hits or bites in anger or frustration, stop and say, “Ouch. That hurts my arm, and it hurts my feelings.” Then, be sure and reflect on the anger. “You are angry. What can you do that is safe and doesn’t hurt others when you’re angry?” Practice some simple ideas like hugging a pillow or walking outside together.
- Each time your child is upset or expresses any big feeling, be sure and name the feeling and ask if you are correct. “You seem angry. Is that right?” This builds their feelings vocabulary adding to their self-awareness and ability to manage their feelings.
As you react to your child in ways that soothe, you will find they will feel a greater sense of your understanding and responsiveness so that your interactions become more two-way instead of one-way even when they are highly upset.
You can also name feelings when your child is happy or excited and ask if you are correct. “You seem happy. Is that right?” Naming feelings helps your child 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.
Keep directions short, clear, slow, and brief to help your child listen and cooperate. Use body language such as pointing or motioning to support your instructions.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Children are learning how to engage in healthy relationships through your loving interactions, which include 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. Here are some typical milestones of this age group.1
- 3-4-year-olds are beginning to understand that their body, thoughts, and feelings are their own.
- 3-4-year-olds are growing in their imagination and allowing it to drive their play. They may take on an imaginary friend or fear imagined monsters or dangers.
- 3-4-year-olds are finding that they can create more interesting pretend play by cooperating and negotiating with other children.
- 3-4-year-olds are talking in five to six word sentences with the ability to tell stories and speak in ways others can understand.
- 3-4-year-olds develop a curiosity about bodies – their own and others.
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.
- Share the focus. As you spend time with our child, follow their lead. As they pretend play, join in their world.2
- Notice gestures and listen for thought and feeling. Improve your nonverbal skill interpretation and attempt to figure out what your child is trying to tell you through their sounds, gestures, and facial expressions. When they are expressing a feeling on their face or through their body, name it and ask them if it’s true. “You look sad. Are you feeling sad?”
- Help your child develop an understanding of other people’s feelings by asking them how they think other people feel in certain circumstances. You could say, “How do you think your friend felt when they fell at the playground?” Or when reading a story or in pretend play, you could ask, “How do you think the boy in the story feels right now?”
- Children require your attention to thrive. So, why not build a special time into your routine when you are fully present to listen to what your child has to tell you? Turn off your phone. Set a timer if needed. Give it a special name you and your child create like “Mom and Susie’s Special Time.” Then, notice your body language. Ask yourself: “What is my body communicating, and how am I demonstrating that I’m listening?”
- Create a safe base. At a time when your child is not upset, talk about what makes your child feel better and offers comfort. Create a “safe base” with your child — a place in the house your child can choose to go when they want comfort. Place a pillow, blanket, and stuffed animal there. Play act using it. “I am getting red in the face. I’m hot. I feel angry. I’m going to my safe base to calm down.”
- Narrate your feelings. For example, when meeting someone new, talk about how you feel and ask about how they feel. “I am feeling excited to meet our new neighbor. How are you feeling?”
Never command your child to go to their safe base when they are upset. Instead, gently remind, “Would your safe base help you feel better?” Offer it as a free choice. If you tell them to go there, it takes away their ownership. Your child will not have the opportunity to practice and internalize the self-management skill the experience has the opportunity to build.
We can get into the habit of saying, “No,” nagging, or scolding when a child is engaged in learning through play and struggling with listening. Before doing any of these, pause and ask yourself, “How can I better communicate what my child needs to do?” Then, communicate on eye level in brief terms what they can do rather than what they shouldn’t do or aren’t doing well. For example, you could say, “Let’s gather your toys together, so we can start making dinner.”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Listening Skills for Healthy Relationships
Your daily conversations can be opportunities for your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. Each time your child works hard to practice essential listening skills, they grow vital new brain connections that strengthen and eventually form habits.
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 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 listen and let your sister finish her story.” Remember that conversations require the skill of taking turns. Taking turns requires practice and is invaluable when children are learning to play with others.
- 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 and songs that require strong listening skills. Offer practice by playing these games with your child.
- Hide and Seek is a favorite child game as they try and figure where you’ve hid or hide from you. This also exercises turn-taking skills, which are essential to communication.
- Simon Says. Parents can play the leader first to model how the game is played. Call out instructions always preceded by “Simon says.” “Simon says pat your shoulders. Simon says, stop.” Call out a command that isn’t introduced with “Simon says” and the person who isn’t listening carefully and moves on that command has to take on the role of leader.
- Music Making. Experiment with a range of children’s music, movie music, classic pieces, Reggae, Motown and other genres that inspire dancing, singing, and playing along. Grab pots, pans, and spoons for instruments. Talk about what different instruments you can hear in the music.
- Yellow Light, Green Light, Red Light – Stop! This classic game helps children practice impulse control. Adults can serve as the leader with children beginning at the other side of the room. Each time the adult spins around with their eyes shut, they recite the phrase, “Yellow light, green light, red light – stop!” Children run on yellow and green toward the leader but must freeze on red. If the leader turns around and sees running on red, the runner returns to start and tries again.
- 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. Involve your child in holding the book, turning pages, and predicting what will come next. Hold onto a page before turning it and ask, “What do you think will happen next?” Reflect on the story, and you’ll take the learning opportunity one step further. “Do you think Little Red Riding Hood was excited to go to Grandma’s house?”
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.
- Learn about your child’s development. Each new age presents different challenges. Being informed about your child’s developmental milestones offers 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 especially when communication becomes challenging.
- Engage in further practice. Play listening games to reinforce skills such as “Let’s see if you can name all of the sounds we hear when we go outside!” Create more opportunities to practice when all is calm.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should follow soon after a negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a 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. We all lose our 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 to 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 you want to see more of. “You listened to my directions to keep you safe – 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 give you a sticker” (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 all 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 and following your instructions, call it out: “I notice you listened when I asked you to begin picking up your toys. I know you were having fun.”
- 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. “I noticed how you waited while I was talking with someone else. Love seeing that!” “I saw you go to help your friend when they fell at the playground today. That was really kind of you.”
- Build celebrations into your routine. Include hugs, high fives, and claps in your 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.