Arguably, listening is the most meaningful skill in any relationship and it's the first language mode that children acquire. It's the core skill we need to understand anyone, especially our children. And it's the core skill they need to understand what they hear.
Listening with the intent of understanding someone, and getting their feedback about our understanding, is called Active Listening. It's far more than just hearing. It's a thinking process that requires fully concentrating on the speaker's message. Making it work involves making eye contact; assuming a comfortable, relaxed posture; reflecting on and paraphrasing what's heard; reflecting on and clarifying the speaker's responses; and asking for feedback. As such, it helps the listener to listen more empathetically and to more accurately understand the speaker, which builds trust and strengthens influence.
Therapists know that many clients come to therapy just to be listened to, heard, and understood in a respectful way. Clients often say it's a relief to speak without being cut off, judged, or otherwise frustrated in their desire to be heard. Originally known as the "Talking Cure," therapy offers clients an opportunity to find their own solutions through talking and being accurately heard. Often, at home or at work, clients are surrounded by others who judge them, interrupt them, or demean what they're saying. Often their listeners have competing agendas or just lack the skills of active listening. Not surprisingly, clients and many other speakers find this frustrating, even exasperating.
The Role of Parents and Teachers
Children too need to be listened to and taught to listen.
Listening skills begin at home. It is within the family that children develop their expectations for being heard and their listening skills. If family members practice poor listening skills, young children will likely develop poor listening skills and low expectations for being understood.
The easiest way parents can help their children develop good listening skills is to habitually model good skills. They should show their children how to speak and listen respectfully to bank tellers, store merchants, teachers, friends, family members, and others. When others speak, they should listen carefully—with the intent of understanding. They should listen politely, gently interrupting only to clarify what's been said or to communicate understanding by paraphrasing meaning.
Teachers too can model good listening skills. If a child enters school with poor listening skills, it's not too late. Listening can be learned and refined at any time, well into adulthood.
Why should schools teach effective listening? First, it improves academics. Second, it's critical to success throughout life. Third, it helps children become less self-centered and genuinely interested in others.
Ten Tips for Helping Children Develop Good Listening Skills
To help children improve their listening skills:
Read a story aloud. Periodically interrupt the reading to start an interpretive discussion. Encourage discussions of what-if questions: "What it she grew 1-foot taller? ... What if she never found the treasure?"
Position yourself correctly. When communicating directly to children, make sure the physical distance between the two of you is comfortable. Sit at eye level to avoid towering over them.
Use words economically and clearly. With younger children (and many adolescents), the longer you talk the greater the risk of losing their attention. With adolescents, clarify potential ambiguities as they tend to search for loopholes and exceptions. Give examples of what you mean and don't mean.
Don't confuse listening with obeying. If children engage in behaviors you had asked them not to, avoid saying, "You're not listening!" They may have listened and understood. Instead, use such moments to address defiance without challenging children's ability to listen or understand. The most effective responses stress how children can improve their behavior: "Marylee, please look at the picture.... Thanks.
Use children's common experiences to make your comments interesting and relevant. For young children, use toys, games, and friends as examples: "Marylee, you know when we play 'Chutes and Ladders' you have to wait your turn. Well, in this line for ice cream we also have to wait our turn." For older children use their extracurricular activities, friends, allowance, homework, and the like as examples: "Alexis, you can earn computer-time after you show Ms. McCormick your finished homework. It's like going out with your friends—you can go after your house chores are done." Offering an experience that's parallel and familiar increases understanding.
Ask children to listen for a word or phrase. Make it a game. Offer praise that's relevant to the task: "Kierstin. You paid attention and listened well. You quickly caught me saying '94-feet' [the target phrase for which Kierstin was asked to listen]. Great job. Sharp listening. Your earned a point."
Play the old favorite, "Whisper Down The Lane." It's still a great way to demonstrate that messages get distorted. The final message rarely resembles the original one. It's a good laugh and an important lesson.
Encourage children to listen to each other's reports or oral reading of a story or article. Have others summarize the main points.
Listen to accurately understand the speaker's message. It shows respect for the person and the message. Tentatively confirm your understanding before you respond: "Am I hearing you say you're feeling bad because you can only invite two friends?" "Are you saying you're disappointed because your grade is lower than you expected?"
Try to give each child some personal time. If you're a parent, regularly arrange time to be alone with each of your children so you can give each your undivided attention and model good listening skills. Giving each child personal time is an opportunity for each to be heard and understood (not necessarily agreed with) without the distractions of other people.
By keeping one thing in mind—Listen the way you want to be listened to—you'll help children become effective listeners.
Ila A. Keiner, M.Ed., JD, MSW, LCSW has a private clinical practice in Linwood, N.J. As part of her practice, she counsels children and families, consults to schools and attorneys, prepares forensic reviews, conducts Parent Satisfaction Surveys for public and private schools, helps parents prepare for IEP meetings, and assesses compliance with the specifics of IEPs. In addition, she frequently helps schools and parents resolve conflicts.