Isn’t it amazing that two-year-olds born anywhere in the world have acquired the listening skills needed to understand and speak their native languages—complete with intonation and inflection? Listening is a vital precursor to academic and social learning. As children grow, they learn to understand and interpret many different types of sounds. We can help them learn from the sounds around them, such as in nature, music, and technology. However, learning to focus on the human voice promises the greatest rewards. As children listen to us, we can teach and bond with them and keep them safe. And as they listen to peers, they learn to get along.
What does a positive listening climate look like?
The ideal teaching setting is one of positive reinforcement, where we are constantly looking for appropriate behavior that we can reward. When children demonstrate active listening, we can give sincere, intermittent praise that focuses on what we specifically like. Our positive feedback increases the likelihood of those behaviors continuing and growing stronger.
As much as 97 percent of the time, children are ignored when they are behaving appropriately! We typically give attention to inappropriate behavior six to seven times more often than appropriate behavior. This inadvertently rewards children when they are not listening to us. Because children seek our attention, they will increasingly do things that we reinforce. As we shift our focus to noticing positive behavior, we can help shape a child’s listening behavior. This creates a climate that is conducive to listening, because any behavior that is reinforced will increase. And behavior is more likely to improve with positive rather than adverse interactions.
How can we create a classroom climate where children feel motivated to listen and learn?
- Teach. First, we need to teach children what good listening looks like, using activities such as the Open Your Mind to Listening activity below.
- State expectations simply and directly. Be brief. Try to keep your directives to no more than 12 words or no longer than five seconds. This is as long as we can expect to keep a child’s attention. Some examples are, “Time to listen,” “Put on your listening ears,” “Look at me, please,” and “As I read the story, please listen quietly.”
- Be cheerful. Children will be more ready to listen when you are happy, kind, and empathetic to their needs. Even when we need to redirect behavior, we can be pleasant. Once children are on task again, remember to give a cheerful compliment.
- Praise children who are listening well. Rather than calling out children who aren’t paying attention, praise those who are. Other children will often notice and start listening. You might stop speaking periodically to briefly compliment children for listening. You might say, “I like the way you are looking at me,” or “Thanks for being quiet while I talk.” To encourage any behavior, it’s most effective when we give positive feedback eight times more often than negative feedback. It makes such a difference when we notice and remark on the positive things going on in the room. More than anything else, this will set a climate where children feel comfortable. They’ll enjoy listening and sharing their own thoughts.
- Keep listening intervals short. Young children have very short attention spans. Talk as simply and briefly as possible, using simple vocabulary and short sentences. Take breaks between instruction, rewarding children for listening. Allow children to move and stretch occasionally. Some fidgeting and sitting in different postures is age-appropriate for young children.
- Use novel ways to get children’s attention when starting a new activity. For example, in a normal voice say, “If you can hear me, put your finger on your nose,” or “Show me you are listening by folding your hands.” Try to change it up to make it fun.
- Get on children’s eye level. Make sure children look at you and can hear you before giving instructions.
- Ignore inconsequential behavior. Due to their lack of experience and maturity, young children will exhibit lots of inattentive behavior that’s typical for their age. It may take time to understand expected group behavior for circle time or lining up. Be patient and calm. Overlook some behaviors that aren’t totally appropriate while looking for positive things to acknowledge. Bring focus to those who are setting an example of listening and following instructions.
- Redirect inappropriate behavior. If a child is clearly acting out or not listening, restate your expectation in a calm way. Redirect the behavior to something appropriate. Then cheerfully acknowledge the new improved behavior.
Below is a listening activity that can help children learn specific readiness skills and see the importance of listening and having an open mind.
Activity: Open Your Mind to Listening*
Have you ever seen young children cover their ears when they don’t want to hear something? This visual demonstration contrasts closing our ears and minds with active listening.
Setup: Use a marker to draw eyes and a mouth on a quart-size glass jar. Write each of the following phrases on the side of a wood clothespin:
- Stay quiet while someone talks.
- Look at the person talking.
- Think about what you hear.
For older children, you might add three more pins with the following phrases:
- Say back what you heard.
- Ask questions to make sure you understand.
- Think about how the person feels.
Discussion: Show children the jar and talk about how when the lid is on the jar, no new words or ideas can come in. Explain that this is like a person who isn’t listening. Take off the lid and explain that when we take the lid off the jar, it’s like we’re opening our ears and minds to listening and hearing someone talk to us.
Demonstrate and discuss the meaning of the three (or six) listening skills written on the clothespins.
Activity: Put the lid back on the jar and ask, “Can you hear ideas when you aren’t listening?” Set the jar on the ground. Let children drop a clothespin to see if it will fall in the jar. Of course, the pins will hit the lid and will not go in. Then, take off the lid (reminding children to open up their ears and their minds) and let a child try again. When the child drops the clothespin in, read the skill written on the pin. This is the skill that the listening “jar person” is practicing.
Help the child repeat the skill to you (which requires listening). You might also prompt the child to say something like, “I show good listening when . . . I stay quiet while someone talks,” or “I can listen well when . . . I look at the person talking.”
Listening prompt: You can use the listening jar as a listening prompt after the activity is over. When you would like children to listen, ceremoniously hold up the jar and take the lid off of it. Teach children a readiness signal, such as folding their arms or putting their hands to their ears, to show that they are ready to listen.
As you set an example of listening and showing interest in children, explicitly teaching listening skills, and positively acknowledging their efforts, the learning environment of your classroom is bound to become more positive and motivating for both you and the children in your care.
*The Open Your Mind to Listening activity was adapted from Talk and Work It Out.
Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., has her master’s degree in elementary education and gifted education. A former first-grade teacher, she has taught education classes at Utah State University and has supervised student teachers. Cheri and her husband David have six children and enjoy the company of their lively grandchildren. They live in Laurel, Maryland.
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