Helping Children Learn to Listen

helping children learn to listen


Excerpted from the CE Course Helping Children Learn to Listen, Adina Soclof, MS, CCC-SLP, © Professional Development Resources, 2013.

“My kids don’t listen to me!”
“My kids are so stubborn and strong willed!”
“Why won’t my kids follow the simplest directions?”
“How can I make my kids listen?”

Complaints like these are so common among parents that one might conclude that not listening is the norm – rather than the exception – among children. In fact, failure to listen is a common occurrence among all children at least some of the time. When it becomes a chronic condition, that is, when a child rarely or never listens to adults, it becomes clinically worrisome because the safety and well-being of the child can be at risk. The failure to develop good listening skills is also a threat to a child’s learning processes. It is difficult to comprehend and follow directions if one is not listening. Furthermore, children who do not listen are likely to have difficulties in their relationships with both adults and peers.

There are two general types of children who are chronically poor listeners: children with oppositional or conduct disorders and those with communication disorders. These are obviously two very different groups, and the approaches to remediation will be very different.

Therefore, the first order of business here will be to address the question: what kinds of children can benefit from the strategies and interventions discussed in this article? For starters, we might place children into one of three very general categories:

1. Typically developing children
2. Children with language delays or communication issues
3. Children with oppositional defiant and conduct disorders

Of these three groups, the first two will be good candidates for the techniques provided in this course. Typically developing children may be poor listeners for a variety of reasons that will be described herein. The interventions described will help them become better listeners and assist them in their relationships with adults and in their day-to-day development.

Children with language delays do experience greater difficulty following directions, which parents perceive as “not listening to them.” This results in a constant struggle between parents and children, frustrating the children – who feel that their parents overreact and don’t understand them, as well as the parents – who do not understand why their children exhibit such resistant behavior all the time. Children with language delays and communication disorders will need ongoing language interventions because of the deficits that are part of their developmental conditions. Intervention is crucial for this group so that they can learn better communication skills and get on with their social and emotional development.

The third group, however – children with more serious behavior disorders – are not likely to benefit from the interventions described in this article. These children and adolescents have underlying behavior patterns that will require serious and ongoing mental health interventions. The techniques offered in this course would not be effective with antisocial youth because they are based on underlying motivational mechanisms that are not present in individuals with oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder.

The second question to be addressed here is: what is the age range of children who are likely to respond to this type of training? The answer is that most of the techniques described here can be tailored to the age and development level of the child or adolescent. Examples of modifying statements and techniques for use with children and adolescents are included in a number of sections. In fact, it may even become clear that some of these techniques can be adapted for use with adults.

Effective strategies enable us to manage our children, while being a support source for parents and caregivers. Opportunities abound for all school-based professionals like SLPs, counselors, social workers, and school psychologists to help parents and caregivers address challenging behavior. Once they are able to understand the link between language disorders and “misbehavior,” they are able to manage non-compliant behavior much more effectively.

Why Are Children Non-Compliant?

There are four basic psychological and sociological reasons why children are non-compliant and have trouble listening. It should be understood that these dynamics are common to all children, not only those with language delays.

1. Listening is Difficult for Children

One of the major reasons why children do not listen and are non-compliant and is because listening is not easy.

Children have a hard time listening. Adults who have to sit in long meetings and lectures can commiserate. It takes a lot of concentration and energy to listen. Listening requires quiet and an ability to attend to your surroundings and to discern the important messages that are being conveyed. It’s easier for children to listen when the message pertains to them, which is not always the case (McDuffie & Yoder, 2010).

Sometimes children have been listening the whole day at school and when they come home they are tired. Often they are immersed in pretend play, reading, video games or TV and they truly don’t hear their parents.

What we perceive as non-compliant or strong-willed behavior can also just be a child struggling to listen. Children with auditory processing issues and other language disorders have a harder time than other children (Hoskins & Collins, 1979), but modifications to the home or classroom can improve their listening skills. Strategies like those listed here can help ( – retrieved January 16, 2013):

• Seat the child away from auditory and visual distractions to help maintain focus and attention.
• Structure the environment using a consistent routine.
• Before speaking, first gain the child’s attention and then give directions.
• Avoid asking the child to listen and write at the same time.
• Speak slowly and clearly by using words that make sequence clear such as “first,” “next,” and “finally.”

It is important to remember that children usually want to do the right thing. They need their parent’s love and, even more so, their approval. If children are not listening it is probably because they truly can’t. This is one of the points of departure for children with oppositional and defiant disorders, as noted earlier. They do not necessarily want to do the right thing, nor are they overly concerned for their parents’ approval.

2. Children Need Independence

Children, like all human beings, possess a strong desire for independence. It is actually a basic human need. Being independent makes us feel that we have some control over our decisions and our fate. We are empowered by knowing that we can think for ourselves, take care of ourselves, and rely on ourselves to survive in this world. Independence is the foundation for self-respect and belief in one’s self.

Children are often torn between wanting their parents to take care of them and needing to feel independent. They are confused. When their parents ask them to do something and they need to comply, they are also battling their inner voice which might be telling them:

“You don’t need to listen to anyone. You are your own boss. You can do your own thing!”

The resulting defiance and non-compliance can be an outgrowth of this internal psychological struggle of wanting to listen to their parents but also needing to assert their autonomy.

This idea is better understood when put into adult terms. Imagine your reaction if your spouse said to you:

“Take out the garbage now!”
“It is time to go. Stop cooking dinner and come with me!”

We would experience similar inner voices:

“You don’t need to listen to anyone; don’t tell me to take out the garbage; tell him to take it out himself.”
“You are your own boss and you can do your own thing. You can cook when you want to cook and leave when you want to leave.”

As you can see, this basic need for independence that all humans possess can compromise children’s ability to listen (Flasher & Fogle, 2004 p. 111; Ginott, 1971).

3. Democracy Works for Countries, Not Families

The case can be made that children today have a tougher time listening to authoritative figures than children in earlier generations. Why is this? Primarily because modern parents – those born in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s – are not as comfortable setting down rules and demanding respect from children as their parents were when they were growing up. While older generations were taught that authority should not be questioned or challenged, we were ingrained with the democratic principles that everyone should be treated equally. We have a much harder time than our parents did of putting ourselves in the role of the absolute authoritarian. The parenting standard “You will do it because I’m your parent and I said so” was an accepted rationale when we were growing up, but no longer feels right to us as we manage and teach our children.

Not only do today’s adults have difficulty commanding authority, but modern children do not possess that instinctive sense of how to obey their parents that was present just a generation or two ago. The human rights movement of the 1960’s shifted our traditional mores. Duty and obedience were basic universal values in earlier eras, and people were expected to be submissive to higher authorities. Today, submissiveness and obedience at home, on TV, and in schools are outdated principles.

Compare, for instance, the attitudes toward parenting and portrayal of child-adult relationships in popular family-themed TV shows from previous generations, such as My Three Sons, Brady Bunch, A Family Affair, and recent shows, such as Modern Family, The Simpsons, and 8 Simple Rules, and the dramatic shift in culture and attitude is quickly demonstrated.

However, if children are to grow up productive and emotionally healthy, they need authority figures in their lives. Those authority figures need to be their parents and teachers. Without limits and rules, children are unhappy, stressed, anxious and depressed.

So underneath all their bluster, kids really want to learn how to listen to adults. They want to respect them and they want to be taught how to comply and obey rules.

4. Children Will Routinely “Misbehave”

It is helpful for adults to know that most children are going to “misbehave” and will not listen, at least on occasion. Non-compliant behavior is a normal part of the parent-child interaction. Most young children – and even teens – lack self-control until they have more life experience. As they mature, they slowly learn the rules of how to behave and be more compliant.

Parents’ and teachers’ roles include disciplining their children and teaching them to listen. Discipline need not – and should not – be punitive. It really means teaching children the rules for living. A key component of that is teaching children good listening skills.

As we move forward in the course, we need to keep in mind the following observations in order to help children listen:

1. Listening is tough for kids.
2. They need us to respect their instinct for independence.
3. They want to be obedient but don’t know how.
4. Misbehavior is a natural part of growing up.

Consequently, when we are helping and teaching our kids to listen to us, we need to do the following:

1. Understand that listening is a learned skill and is not instinctive.
2. Ask children to comply with our wishes in a way that does not compromise their independence.
3. Find ways to maintain authority kindly and gently so that kids have an easier time accepting our authority.
4. View misbehavior as an opportunity to teach and guide, and not automatically assume it is a defect that can be corrected only through punitive action.

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