In my professional life, I’ve consulted and advised a variety of people — parents, teachers, care-givers. Now and then I even consult myself. My “mother self” becomes frustrated with something, and soon, the “consultant” part of my brain steps in to remind my “mother self” of what I already know. Such has been the case this week. I have found myself, time and time again, wondering why I’m not getting the response I want from my boys. Too often, I feel like they’re just not listening to me. And then the consultant in me steps onto the stage in my mind and let’s me know why.
Listening is a skill that involves two parties: the speaker and the listener. Often, when we feel someone isn’t listening, we look only to that party. And that seems like a valid response, because listening is a learned skill, and one that needs to be taught directly, and practiced (read more about how I teach kids to be good listeners). But that ignores the other half of the equation. Listening is also — at times perhaps more so — about how we talk to them. Here are four ways you can be sure to be an effective speaker when talking to young children.
- Get Close. I’ll confess that I sometimes call out orders to my boys from another room, and then wonder why they aren’t “listening”. While it may be humanly possible for a child to hear you from thirty feet away, they often won’t be able to focus in on what you are saying from the kitchen with pots and pans clanging, as they play with toys on the living room floor, with Raffi playing in the background, and Maggie the dog walking and panting behind them. They are still learning to selectively attend — meaning to focus on what they intend to focus on and screen out other distracting sources of sensory input. So if you really want a young child to hear what you are saying, step right up to her, get down on her level, make eye contact, even put your arm around her or a hand on her shoulder. A child is much more likely to hear you if you come into her sphere, than if you try to drag her into yours.
- Keep it Short. It’s tempting to rattle off the list of morning to-dos: get dressed, make your bed, eat your breakfast, brush your teeth, and feed the dog. But a young child can generally only process and remember one to two commands at a time. Additionally, a young child is more likely to comply when you give positive feedback with each task’s completion.
- Keep it Sweet. You’ve heard the saying, “You can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar“, right? While I’m not sure why you want to attract flies, the principle is true. If you engage a child by using his name, keeping a soft, kind voice, and employing enthusiastic and encouraging facial expressions and body language he’s much more likely to be receptive to your message than if you turn it into a power struggle, nag, or threaten. All that vinegar’s a big turn-off.
- Repeat. There’s this funny thing we do as adults when we feel children aren’t listening. We keep repeating ourselves in the same way, only with more and more frustration as we know we are “being ignored”. Repetition helps, but if you really want to be sure a child is listening, ask the child to do the repeating. You could ask him to directly repeat what you just said, or you could rephrase the instruction into a question: “Now tell me, what are you going to do when you finish getting dressed?”
So if you find that the children you love and teach don’t seem to be listening, think about what you could be doing on your end, as the speaker, that might help them be more successful!
Top Photo by Simona Balint.