5 Ways to Help a Child or Young Person Listen

Published On: 11 April 2023

Reading time: 4 minutes

If you work with children and young people, you might feel it’s impossible to get them to listen. Especially in busy settings, it can feel like we’re constantly repeating ourselves! It’s also something parents and carers often ask for our advice about, when they feel their child won’t pay attention to them at home.

So what can you do to help a young person in your care listen to you?

What does ‘good listening’ look like?

When we think of children paying attention, we often imagine them stopping what they’re doing and sitting still. We might feel they’re not paying attention if they’re squirming in their seat, fidgeting, doodling, or playing with something. 

However, children and young people are active. They find it difficult to stay still for any length of time and they may be listening even though their body is moving. Often we look for eye contact to show someone is listening, but for many individuals, this can feel uncomfortable.

We can challenge our preconceptions about what ‘good listening’ looks like and instead focus on our own communication skills, meeting individual needs, and the physical environment we’re in to help children and young people listen when we speak.

So what does ‘good listening’ look like? There’s just no one-size-fits-all.

Why do children and young people appear not to be paying attention?

There are many reasons why a young person might not be paying attention when we speak. Having a good understanding of them, their needs and preferences can help us understand why they appear to not be listening, or struggling to give us attention.

They could be:

  • Focused on something else: When a young person is intently doing something, they may literally not hear us—this is something everyone does when we are very focused on an activity.
  • Worried about something: If they feel stressed or under pressure, they may struggle to focus on what we’re saying. They could be just be preoccupied with other thoughts or be having a physiological stress response to a perceived threat.
  • Choosing not to listen: Young people may find it hard to stop doing an activity they enjoy, so it’s not surprising they may choose not to listen when it will take them away from something they are enjoying.
  • Struggling to process what we’re saying: Many children can struggle to follow long, complex sentences, or multi-step instructions. It can take them longer to process information and feel frustrated if they can’t understand.

While there are many strategies we can use to help a child or young person listen, it’s also important to remember physical needs. If they don’t seem to hear instructions, mishear, or increasingly don’t seem to pay attention, it’s always worth checking if a recent hearing test has been carried out.

How to help a child or young person listen

We are all under significant pressures. We juggle multiple responsibilities and can find ourselves half listening while checking emails, trying to support different individuals at the same time, and looking at documents. While we like to think of ourselves as multi-taskers, we really can only concentrate on one thing at a time. Modeling the behaviours we want to encourage can help individuals mirror them back to us. Giving our full attention when a child or young person is trying to communicate with us shows them what ‘good listening’ is all about. It’s not about eye contact or sitting still, it is about giving our attention and focusing on what is being communicated.

There are some simple techniques we can use to help children and young people focus on what’s being communicated to them, and help them remember instructions:

  1. Start by saying their name to catch their attention: Instead of saying, “Can you hold this, Karim?” we might say, “Karim, can you hold this?”
  2. Keep instructions short and to the point: Simple one-step instructions work best for many individuals. These can be reinforced with picture cards or signing to make the meaning clear. If there is a lot for them to remember, they could do one thing first and then listen to the next instruction.
  3. Allow take up time: It’s easy for us to leap into a series of instructions before a child or young person has had time to process what we’re saying. After saying their name, leave a pause to let them focus on what is being communicated.
  4. Consider the environment: It’s hard to focus when we’re surrounded by stimulation. Think about the environment the child is in. If it’s loud, busy, or visually distracting, they may find it easier to move to a quieter space if they need to listen carefully.
  5. Remember age and individual needs: Sometimes we can have unrealistic expectations of how long we think children can pay attention for. Considering ways to break up tasks and remembering what the essential information is can help us chunk information and focus on the key purpose of the communication.

Final thoughts

‘Good listening’ isn’t simple. When we have narrow expectations of what it should look like, we can inadvertently escalate situations by placing unnecessary demands on children and young people to behave in a particular way – seeking compliance from them rather than focusing on what we’re trying to communicate, why we’re doing it, and how we are going about it. What seems like inattention or poor listening can often be supported by considering our own communication skills and making small changes to better meet individual needs.