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Middle Childhood » Communication

Encouraging Listening Skills

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By Judith Belk-Kanouse, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, CCC-A

Copyright 1990 by Communication Skill Builders, Inc.

Communication and learning skills grow out of effective listening. Listening is a child's first communication activity; it is essential for learning about and participating in life. Hearing and listening are not the same-listening is an active process of focusing on sound; hearing is passive reception of sound. Listening means focusing on some sounds and "tuning out" others.

Listening has a lot to do with attention span, since it requires the ability and desire to pay close attention to sound. Poor listening can begin at any age and for many reasons, such as health problems, an accident, a major lifestyle change, or stress. Children with a history of ear infections are particularly prone to hearing and listening problems.

Most of us could learn to listen better. Can you recall a moment when you weren't listened to? Suppose your doctor didn't listen? You know the frustration when you are not listened to. You also know the danger.

What are the effects of poor listening? Poor listening can lead to major errors or serious accidents. Poor listening during early development may result in problems with attention, memory, speech, language, reading, and other learning and communication skills.

How does listening develop in babies? Babies with normal hearing can hear during the last few months of pregnancy. The fetus hears sounds of the mother's heartbeat, breathing, digestion, and circulation. The fetus also hears voices-particularly the mother's. Voices occur randomly, compared to the steadiness of body sounds. Music and the sound of the mother's voice interest the fetus. The fetus focuses on these sounds, reducing the effect of other sounds.

This is the beginning of listening. This is the beginning of communication with another human being. When you listened to music during pregnancy, did your baby move more? The developing fetus was becoming attuned-to you and to the world.

A baby born with disabilities may have reduced desire and ability to listen. Many things during childhood influence whether a child tunes in to what is happening. But most children will respond to efforts to rebuild listening skills.

How can I help build my child's listening skills?

The first step is to provide the most comfortable, secure, and loving family life possible. Children who are physically or emotionally uncomfortable tune out threatening sounds. Spend time together listening to soothing music. Some parents play classical music or read children's stories even to newborns. Music and the sound of their parent's voices when reading are soothing to children.

Playing a tape recording of the mother's heartbeat may soothe a fretful infant. Listening to music and a recording of the mother's heartbeat may help the baby deal with the loud sounds of an incubator or respirator.

The rhythm of the mother's bodily sounds, her voice, and her music mean comfort, security, and survival to the developing baby. Think about how rocking and singing reduce distress of young children-this universal effect relates to the comfort and protection of the womb.

The birth cry is your baby's first statement. Your baby learns that you are listening when you respond quickly and eagerly during the early months.

Babies coo, babble, and make jargon sounds while they learn to talk. Respond to these sounds immediately: Let the baby complete a string of sounds and then repeat it. The baby will learn that you are listening and the voices have power. You will also be teaching turn taking.

Repeat and expand on what your young child says without making an issue of how clear the speech is-the child needs to know that you will listen without criticizing. Praise the sounds the child makes. Stay physically close to the child when talking and listening-this is especially important when the child has a hearing loss.

Be a good role model for listening. Look at the child when you speak and listen. Call the child's name and touch the child's shoulder as you begin to talk to help the child focus on your voice. Avoid interrupting. You're teaching that people have a right to be listened to.

Set aside a special listening time each day with the child. Control noise level in the home during this time; turn off the radio, TV, vacuum cleaner, running water, and other noises. Create a special song for the child-make up your own tune or use a well-known melody with your words:

"Big boy, Neil. Mommy and Daddy love you. Today we went to Grandma's..."

Sing the song often and invite the child to sing along with you. If possible, move the child's hands, feet, and body in time with the rhythm.

During your special listening time, speak in rhythms. Tap on an object near the child or clap your hands:

"Hello, hello, how are you today? My name is Daddy. Here comes Mom.."

Encourage other family members to create special listening times with the child. Talk to the child whenever the child is awake. Describe what you hear, see, and touch. If the child eats family foods, describe the taste, aroma, and texture of the food.

Buy tapes or records of children's music, or borrow them from the library. If someone else cares for your child during the day, make a video or audio tape recording of you and other family members saying or singing something personal for the child. Have the caregiver play the tape several times a day. Are these special songs in your family to sing to children? Would Grandma or Grandpa record these songs?

Reading and telling stories are essential to speech, language, and listening development. Make up short stories at the child's interest level. Look through magazines or catalogues and point out interesting items. Cut out pictures to create a "listening book," adding new pictures every day. Include family photos. Ask the child to find specific details in the picture (such as a dog, or a big dog, a big black dog, or dog and a cat, actions, and colors). Name items for the child to find in one room, then expand to two items in one room and then to one item in one room and a second item in another room.

Grocery shopping is a wonderful time to point out categories of items and objects. The produce department is filled with colors, smells, textures, shapes, and sounds. Shopping can help your child learn to listen carefully to know what is coming next ("Now let's find soup").

Bathing, changing clothes, feeding, riding in the car or bus, and many other daily events are also good listening times.


Remember the three basics of encouraging listening skills:

  • Set a comfortable scene to invite and support listening.
  • Be a good listener yourself
  • Provide sounds which children find interesting-especially music and voices of people dear to them.
  • If you need help teaching your child listening skills, consult a speech-language pathologist or audiologist.
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