Have you ever been talking in a meeting, and you could tell that some of those in the room were not listening to you? Perhaps a similar experience has happened with your spouse or friend. You are trying to converse with them, but you sense that they aren’t really listening–maybe they are scrolling on their phone or looking away. We’ve all had experiences like this and know that sinking feeling we get when we are being ignored. These simple examples illustrate the importance of good listening skills. 

Perhaps more than any other time in history, today’s world poses many challenges to good listening. Distractions come at us from every direction–phones, devices, radio, television, etc. All these make it difficult to offer someone the gift of our presence and intentional listening. Is it possible to help our children overcome the challenges and promote strong listening skills in them?

Why Listening is Important

We’ve probably all had the experience of sitting in a classroom or meeting hearing a presentation and then realizing after it’s over that we didn’t really listen to any of it. We cannot remember much of what was presented, which makes it  clear that hearing and listening are two different skills. We have our children’s hearing checked at the doctor’s office, but that doesn’t always mean that they are effective listeners.

Effective listening is crucial for both absorbing information and learning, but also in relationships as well. In relationships, being an active and intentional listener leads to more effective communication. Furthermore, good listening promotes strong relationship bonds as those who feel heard are more open to sharing feelings and making changes where necessary

Some scholars have identified the difference between “listening to understand” and “listening to respond.” We’ve all probably experienced interactions in which you could sense that the other person is simply waiting for you to finish speaking in order to respond, but they weren’t really listening. It illustrates the concept of “listening to respond.” Studies find that relationships thrive more when people tend to “listen to understand” more than “listen to respond.” 

Being an effective listener also helps children develop empathy. Those who listen closely and attentively to others are more likely to understand and empathize with others’ feelings. When each person in any relationship feels heard and empathized with, the relationship has a better chance of thriving.

In an academic environment, effective listening skills can be a key component of learning and success. Strong listening skills can help children learn and retain more information. Although we often discuss reading comprehension in our children’s classrooms, the concept of listening comprehension probably comes up less often. In reality, the two are closely linked. For example, we know that children who are exposed to more oral language (through listening to books being read or adult conversation) tend to have better reading skills. Even later in life, listening skills matter, as seen among college students with better listening skills, who tended to score higher in reading and achievement tests.

How to Encourage Effective Listening Skills

In some settings, good listening skills are considered more of a trait than a skill. Individuals are sometimes described as “good listeners,” as though it is a trait that an individual possesses naturally. In reality, effective listening skills can be developed and improved with practice and intentional effort. Although some listening skills are learned in classroom settings, we can do a lot in our homes to encourage strong listening skills in our children.

Model Good Listening: When we are attentive to our children and listen to them without distractions, they learn the qualities of a good listener. In general, strong listening skills involve active listening. That implies that we are intentionally putting effort into listening and responding with care. Scholars suggest that active listening involves 4 key elements: (1) encouraging children’s conversation with phrases like “uh-huh” or “hmmm”; (2) restating the things that children tell us and letting them know we understand; (3) reflecting on what children are saying by explaining what you have interpreted their feelings in phrases like, “It seems you’re feeling very upset about…”; (4) summarizing the ideas or feelings that children are sharing.

Consistently using these elements of active listening with our children will help them eventually adopt as their own when listening to others:

Repetition and Posture

In thinking about listening skills in children, it’s helpful to remember that they typically do not process information as quickly as adults. When listening to an adult, it might take a child longer to understand the information and develop a response. Another strategy that can help with this process is repetition. If we are unsure whether the child understood what we said, we can ask them to repeat some part or all of our sentence. This not only ensures their listening but also provides extra time for them to process the information.
It can also be helpful to get down on a child’s level physically when speaking to them. Kneeling so that you and your child can make eye contact can often improve listening. This may help reinforce to children that eye contact is often associated with active listening.

Games and Activities

Helping promote good listening skills in children doesn’t have to be a seriously arduous task. There are many fun children’s games that foster strong listening skills in children. Games that encourage listening can be ones such as “Simon Says,” “Telephone” (where children pass information to one another by whispering), or storytelling games in which each child (or parent) takes a turn making up one sentence of a story based on what the previous person said.
Some activities that foster listening skills are ones that you may already be doing at home, such as listening to podcasts or audiobooks (bonus if you ask children about what they heard afterward) and reading books aloud. Even common activities like having a family meeting to discuss an upcoming event or cooking together can also foster strong listening skills in children.

Raising Good Listeners

Good listeners make for better relationship partners, learners, and leaders. Although the world is full of distractions that make listening difficult, we can help raise children who value the almost-lost art of listening. Through being active listeners ourselves and fostering listening skills in fun ways, our children can enter adulthood by understanding the value of intentional listening.

Note: The listening skills and active listening techniques mentioned in this article reflect approaches that generally help children with neurotypical brain functioning. Neurodivergent children may exhibit different patterns of listening or not display the same types of outward signs of listening (like eye contact or head nodding). These children may need different types of support to foster effective listening.

Preview Blurb: You know that feeling you experience when you feel really listened to and heard? This experience illustrates the simple power of listening. As parents, we often complain that our children “just don’t listen,” but there are habits and activities we can do to help foster good listening skills. Establishing active listening skills in children now can benefit them for their entire lives. Read on to discover easy ways to foster these valuable listening skills.

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

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