Improving your child’s listening skills

Listening skills for kids
Listening is a vital skill for your primary-school child, but how can you help to develop it?

We all have moments when trying to get our children’s attention feels like talking to a brick wall. At home, this inability to listen can be infuriating – and at school, it could be getting in the way of their learning.

Listening is one of the most important skills for primary school children to master, but it doesn’t always come easily, especially in the early years of school. But with a bit of work, you can help your child develop their listening ability, with knock-on improvements in their achievement at school.

Why listening matters

Just about everything your child does at school depends on their ability to listen – from sitting quietly in assembly to following their teacher’s instructions in the classroom and taking part in team games in PE.

‘Children should ideally develop listening skills before starting primary school,’ says Sue Palmer, a former primary headteacher and author of Upstart: the case for raising the school starting age and providing what the under-sevens really need. ‘They’re critical for reading and writing, and auditory memory is vital for understanding facts in all subjects, as language is the main means of transmitting knowledge. The ability to listen is a major element in the attention skills that children need for all school-based learning.’

Listening matters to children’s friendships, too. A child who is unable to listen to what their classmates are saying to them, and who talks over them or doesn’t pay attention, may end up being excluded from play as they’re seen to be domineering or uncooperative.

What to expect from your child

Listening might be important, but it’s not something that comes easily to many children, especially at a young age. ‘It takes a long time for children to learn to control their attention,’ Sue says. ‘It involves many aspects of development, including physical coordination and control, the ability to control their emotions and defer gratification, and social and communication skills.’

Children’s listening skills will develop over time, and will always be better when they are interested and engaged with what they’re supposed to be listening to. At five to six years old, for example, they’re beginning to be able to filter out distractions, but can still only listen with focus for five to 10 minutes. Some research suggests that they can pay full attention for one minute per year of their life – so by the end of primary school, they’ll be able to listen attentively for around 10 minutes.

‘We can expect most children to be able to settle down voluntarily and listen effectively to their teacher by the age of six to seven. But that assumes they've had the right sort of experience – such as having adults spend time with them, listening to what they say, and many opportunities to play outdoors with other children,’ Sue says.

How to develop your child’s listening skills

While your child’s teacher will be working on developing their listening skills at school, there’s plenty that you can do at home to help. 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. Frustrated with being ignored, we end up raising our voices, which effectively ‘rewards’ their behaviour with your attention. It’s more productive to reward good behaviour than to give attention to the bad, by giving your child praise when they do follow your instructions.

Spending time interacting with your child is also essential. ‘The more songs and stories children are exposed to, the earlier they’re likely to develop aural attention,’ explains Sue. ‘The more opportunities you take to sing, move to music and read to your child, the better: learning songs and rhymes by heart is particularly powerful for developing auditory memory, and listening to stories builds up listening stamina.’

Your child’s ability to listen depends on a healthy lifestyle overall. This includes a healthy diet, plenty of active, outdoor play, limited screen time, plenty of real-life interaction with both adults and children, and good sleeping habits, including a quiet, screen-free wind-down period before bedtime. ‘It’s very important to talk to your child and demonstrate what effective listening involves by listening to them yourself,’ adds Sue.

There are also specific activities you can do with your child to help them develop their listening skills. These include:

  • Games like Simon Says and Traffic Lights, which help your child listen and follow instructions.
  • Listening walks, where you take time to stop and pay attention to the sounds you can hear.
  • Clapping a rhythm for your child to repeat.
  • Playing Chinese Whispers.
  • Describing a picture to your child, which they have to draw based on your description.
  • Playing What’s That Sound?, using household objects to make a noise (e.g. shaking a peppermill, deflating a balloon) and getting your child to guess what it is.

Talking so your child listens

The way you talk to your child matters if you want them to listen. Children generally struggle to multi-task, so rather than expecting them to follow a long sequence of instructions (‘Can you brush your teeth, comb your hair, put your homework in your school bag and get your shoes on, please?’), break it down, giving them one or two at a time.

‘It’s also important to use your child’s name to attract their attention, make eye contact, speak clearly and give them plenty of thinking time before expecting a response,’ adds Sue. These techniques are used to great effect by teachers in the classroom.

Although many children struggle to listen attentively at times, some children have particular difficulties. ‘If you think your child’s listening is a problem, get their hearing tested in case there’s a medical issue,’ Sue advises. ‘Some children, particularly those who have lots of colds and snuffles, have intermittent hearing loss which can affect listening skills.’

If you’re still concerned, speak to your child’s teacher. If they have noticed problems too, the school’s special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) might suggest an assessment with a speech and language therapist to see if your child would benefit from extra help.