Boy with headphones on with music notes floating behind him

Everything you need to know about improving your child’s active listening skills

Written by Adele Keyser

This piece was updated on the 9th of February 2021.

It’s not unusual for kids to sometimes tune you out or have “selective hearing”. Especially when they don’t want to hear things like “you need to stop playing video games and do your chores.” If your child does this once in a while, you might not give it a second thought (other than being annoyed). But if you find that you’re constantly having to repeat important information to them, there may just be something else going on. Is your child not listening? Or is your child struggling to take in and fully comprehend what you’re saying to them? Thankfully, listening is a skill that can be improved upon. Below we explore the what, how, and why of having good listening skills and provide you with some helpful activities that you can start doing with your children today.

What are listening skills?

Parents often confuse “listening” with “hearing”. So, let’s break it down. Listening comprehension is more than just hearing what is being said. It’s a child’s ability to understand the meaning of the words they hear and be able to relate to them in some way. When children hear a story, good listening skills and comprehension enables them to understand it, remember it, discuss it and even retell it in their own words. This is an important skill to develop even at an early age because good listeners grow up to be good communicators, according to Wow Parenting.

The potential downside of poor listening skills

Your child’s listening skills in communication has a major impact on their daily effectiveness and on the quality of their relationships with others. Below are some examples of how having poor listening skills may negatively affect your child in different areas of their daily life:

Problems making friends

Children retain information through their interactions with others and this includes language skills. Difficulties with listening and attention can impact your child’s ability to play effectively with others. A child that’s easily distracted will not be engaging in meaningful and quality play. This distraction will make it difficult to remain part of group play and all of the associated benefits this brings for a child’s language development and social skills.

Child watching teacher giving a class

Problems in the classroom

Poor listening skills can have a huge impact on your child’s learning. The majority of a student’s day is spent listening to their teacher, to other students, or to audio teaching aids. As your child develops, they will begin using their listening skills to improve their vocabulary, grammar and reading ability. If they lack listening skills or do not pay attention in lessons, they might struggle to pick up on mistakes they are making and have problems communicating with their teachers. Reading skills can also suffer if your child does not have adequate listening skills, since they might not pay attention when someone else is reading to them.

Problems with sound awareness

Children with poor listening skills will find it difficult to differentiate between sounds. This is also referred to as “phonological awareness”. Phonological awareness lets children recognise and work with individual sounds in a word. For example, children need to be able to differentiate between the different elements of sounds, such as loudness or tone which makes the difference between an angry voice and a happy voice. Kids who struggle with phonological awareness can also struggle with other aspects of language, like the ability to understand questions and directions. Having difficulties in understanding, following and completing tasks successfully could lead to low self-esteem and even behaviour problems. By setting a good example and working with your child to develop their listening skills from a young age, you can help give them a leg up in the future.

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What are the characteristics of a good listener?

Are you a good listener? Are your kids good listeners? Being a good listener means focusing your attention on the message and assessing what is important information. Successful communication is a two-way street – between a speaker and a listener. Both sides of the conversation need to actively participate in order for there to be understanding. Parents can model good listening behavior for their children and teach them to listen as an active learner, pick out highlights of a conversation, and ask relevant questions. Below are examples of some of the characteristics of a good listener:

Girl playing with educational toys, while mother works on laptop

1. Being interested and attentive. Children can tell whether they have your attention or not by the way you reply (or don’t reply). Put your phone (and any other distractions) down, stop speaking, maintain eye contact and show that you are present in what your child is telling you.

2. Prepare yourself for listening. Children take longer than adults to find the right words and tend to add many unnecessary details. That’s just part of being a kid! Be patient and listen to them as if you have all afternoon to hear their story.

3. Hear them out. Try to avoid cutting your child off before they finish speaking. It is easy to want to correct what they are saying before they finish their thought – try to hold off on doing this and rather ask them questions once they are done speaking.

4. Ask questions. While reading a story to your child, ask them questions in the form of a conversation starter. Questions show that you are listening and interested. Once you’ve asked your question be prepared to actively listen to their answer.

5. Wait and watch for non-verbal communication. Many messages are communicated non-verbally by your child’s tone of voice, facial expressions, energy level, posture or changes in their behaviour patterns. You can sometimes tell more from the way your child tells you something than from the words they are saying – so, pay attention.

6. Maintain eye contact wherever possible. Teach your children to make eye contact when talking. People who make eye contact while conversing are seen as being more active, honest, confident and sociable.

7. Encourage talking. Some children need to be invited to speak up. Encourage your child to share their ideas, thoughts and feelings with you and when they do be sure to follow the above and listen closely to what they have to say.

Mom teaching her daughter, while daughter points at screen.

What are we actually doing when listening?

We are drawing on three different processes when we listen, these are:

1. Hearing

A quick and friendly reminder that hearing doesn’t mean listening, it’s just a physical act of receiving sound stimulation and sending it to the brain for it to be received. A child’s sense of hearing starts to develop at a very early stage in life – so early, in fact, it is shown that they already develop the ability to hear while still in the womb. Babies will respond to the sound of your voice within days of being born. Of course, the majority of children should be able to use their hearing (although some children can have a specific hearing impairment or may suffer from temporary hearing loss). However, just because a child can hear us does not mean that they are listening!

2. Listening

Listening (different from hearing) is the ability to tune into a sound, recognise its importance and interpret the information in the brain. Babies start listening and reacting to noises, sounds, and voices at a very young age. By the time your child is four months old, they will actively turn towards the sound of your voice. As your child grows they’ll learn to listen to different sounds and be able to differentiate between mom’s voice and dad’s voice for example.

3. Attention

Children may be able to hear and listen to sounds and voices, but they also need to be able to do this for a sustained period of time. Your child needs to be able to focus and maintain concentration on aspects of their environment in order for them to learn from it. As your child grows they will gradually learn how to shift their focus from one activity to another and listen at the same time. For more information on the specific attention stages, your child is likely to go through, you can read this article by Teach Early Years.

Active vs passive listening

Listening is an important element of learning. Your child’s ability to actively listen has a major influence on the communication skills they’ll use inside and outside of the classroom. There are many types of listening skills but the two key listening skills we are going to focus on in this article are active and passive listening.

What is active listening?

Active listening means giving the speaker your full attention and trying to understand the complete message being said. Through body language and other cues, active listeners subtly communicate to the speaker; “Hey! I am listening to you!”. Active listeners also show their curiosity and interest by asking questions. This is a verbal sign of active listening, non-verbal signs might include smiling, nodding, having good posture, and avoiding distractions.

Why is active listening important?

Having active listening skills has many benefits and is an important “soft skill” for children to learn. Along with having better comprehension in the classroom, active listeners are generally better communicators and problem solvers. By being an active listener your child is showing characteristics of good character, commitment, and being a leader. Benefits of being an active listener include:

  • Fewer misunderstandings
  • Improved productivity
  • Improved resourcefulness
  • More independence

What is passive listening?

Passive listening is simply hearing what the speaker is saying without really trying to understand it. When students passively listen, they don’t retain information because they are easily distracted. Things like interrupting the teacher often and responding in a way that fails to answer the question being asked may be an indication that your child’s active listening skills are underdeveloped and need to be practiced.

Ways you can support listening comprehension skills

We, as parents, have realised there is so much going on in one simple sentence. It comes as no surprise that our children struggle to listen as we are asking them to take part in a complex process. A process that is often hampered by factors negatively affecting their stage of development – be it emotional, cognitive or social. By understanding the three processes of hearing, listening and attention, and our child’s developmental stages, we will be able to help them better develop their active listening and comprehension skills.

The role of parents in developing listening skills

At school, your child’s teacher will be working on developing their listening skills, but there’s plenty that you can do at home to help them improve even more. One of the most important ways to do this is to break the negative cycle that often develops when a child is a poor listener. When we become frustrated with being ignored, our knee-jerk reaction is often to raise our voice. If you find yourself doing this you are effectively “rewarding” their negative behaviour of not listening. It’s more productive to reward good behaviour like actively listening to you, by giving your child lots of praise when they complete a task correctly. It may seem daunting when faced with children who struggle to listen and pay attention but there are many ways you can help to improve your child’s listening skills, some of which you are probably doing already without realising it!

How parents can nurture good listening skills

Spending more time interacting with your child is essential (and fun). The more opportunities you take to sing, move to music and read to your child, the better! Learning songs and rhymes by heart is especially powerful for developing their auditory memory, and listening to stories builds up their attention stamina. There are also specific active listening skills activities you can do with your child to help you nurture good listening skills. Some fun activities you can do with your child today include:

Two young teenagers playing a listening game

  • Copycat – Play games like broken telephone, clapping a pattern or repeating silly made-up rhymes.
  • Repetition games – Ask your child to repeat what you have said, for example, after giving an instruction.
  • Pictionary with a twist – Describe a setting or image to your child and have them draw a picture based on what you say.
  • Instruction games – Practice following instructions in the form of a game like Simon says.
  • Read stories and make them interactive – Let your child predict the ending and retell the best part back to you.
  • Audio stories – Listen to stories together with your child or as a family and ask them questions.
  • Add-on stories – This can be done in a group where each person adds onto the story every 4 or 5 sentences.
  • Identify sounds – Play or make sounds while your child’s eyes are closed and have them try to identify them.

The importance of good listening comprehension skills

Children with listening comprehension difficulties can face serious learning challenges and are much more likely to fall behind their peers as they progress through school (Field, 2001; Mendelsohn & Rubin, 1995; Schwarts, 1998). Sounds are all around us. The ability to detect sounds is hearing, but the ability to attach meaning to them is listening. This is the foundation for development.

Signs your child may have difficulties listening

If your child is struggling with their listening or attention skills, a few signals could arise. Some common signs that your child is having trouble with listening comprehension include:

  • Having trouble following spoken directions, especially if there are multiple steps.
  • Often asking people to repeat what they’ve said.
  • Being easily distracted, especially by background noise or loud and sudden noises.
  • Your child may have trouble with reading and spelling, which could lead to difficulty understanding sounds.
  • Your child may have a hard time with mathematical word problems.
  • Following along with conversations may be a struggle for them.
  • Having a hard time learning songs or nursery rhymes.
  • Your child might have a hard time remembering details of what was read or heard.

They could also struggle with basic preschool concepts, like counting or learning different colours. Don’t be alarmed if your child is displaying one or some of the above symptoms. Many children outgrow these problems over time, as they begin listening better once they realize that they do not know as much as their classmates. In other children, however, it’s important to keep in mind that intervention by you or a language specialist might be necessary.

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The Author - Adele Keyser

Adele has 27 years experience in teaching pre-primary, foundation phase, intermediate-senior phase and adult education. That's 27 years experience in dealing with children (and parents!). Currently teaching in Cape Town, her major focus is building classroom environments that foster healthy self-esteem and help children realise what they're capable of.

WorksheetCloud is the most exciting way to study for exams and tests!

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8 Comments

  1. Lynn

    Being a Gr R teacher myself for the past 18 years, it is always wonderful to read articles such as this one. Thank you!

    Reply
  2. technos-d

    @admin,

    thanks for sharing your ideas to improve your childs listening skills

    Reply
  3. Lorren

    Good day Mrs. Keyser,
    This is such a wonderful article thank you. I am currently a teacher student busy in my 3rd year.
    I am a grade RR classroom assistant. I was hoping you could give me some creative advice on the following:
    I am experiencing a listening problem with the class. majority of the children do not do very well in listening. I am concerned about their listening skills.

    We are currently in the process of assessing them for the 3rd term report and I am looking for fun, new and creative ways to test their listening skills.

    Any suggestions would be so welcome.

    Thanks in advance.

    Kind regards.

    Reply
    • Ross Frank

      Hi Lorren! Thanks for your comment! We will be sure to pass on your comment to Adele and let her know what you think of her blog post. Listening is a huge problem among children, this I can relate to. Fun ways to teach listening, could be 1. “Simon Says” the point of that game is to make sure they are listening for the words “Simon says” and if Simon did not say it they should not do it. 2. Broken telephone, children love talking, so maybe try broken telephone in groups of 5 or so until they get the hang of it. 3. You can give them 1 instruction in the morning, for example “Always put up your hand when you want to talk”, and then ask them what the instruction was during the day. A new day, A new instruction. I hope this helps. Please let us know if there are any other blog topics you would like for us to cover in the future or if you have any questions regarding our content.

      Ross 🙂

      Reply
    • Bekezile

      Good day Mrs Keyser.
      Wow, this is just wonderful article to read ànd learn from it. I’m a fourth year student hoping to be employed and give it to all to my learners what you’ve highlighted to me.

      Reply
      • Kyle Roets

        Hi Bekezile, thanks for your comment! I’m glad to see that you found our article helpful!

        We hope that everything will go well with the rest of your studies and that you will be able to find work soon.

        Please let us know if there are any other blog topics or useful surveys you would like us to cover in the future or if you have any questions regarding our content.

        Kyle 🙂

        Reply
  4. Queen

    About Lauren’s concern .

    I recently learned that the first attempt to get attention for kids is to raise your own hand as soon as they realize that the hand is raised they should be trained to raise theirs and stop what ever they are doing regardless of its importance and pay attention to you , when you have the attention they can drop the hand on your request then you can instruct the what ever you needed them to do or maybe you can tell them to carry-on with the project quietly. you will notice that as they adapting to this skill they become aware of their attention and they mature in the sense of discipline and that create a wide room for focus and concentration. This might sound irrelevant in the beginning but go and do it and thank me later!

    Reply

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