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The next steps in listening! By Amanda Baxter, I CAN Communication Advisor

This blog comes to you from an I CAN speech & language therapist and explores the importance of listening skills, and what you can to to develop them!

Listening is a skill that develops from when we’re born to adulthood (and then we often use our ‘selective hearing’ to listen to the things we want to hear!). Just like any other skill, from catching a ball to tying our shoelaces we can learn how to listen by knowing how to do it, seeing it in action and by practising. Listening involves focusing on what someone is saying or tuning into sounds and tuning out other noises. It develops gradually as we learn what to tune in to and what to filter out. It involves focusing and concentration to learn this skill.

Children go through different stages and eventually, by about age 5 to 6, young children usually learn how to listen to information while they are involved in an activity of their own. They can make sense of the information in order to understand what is being said. The listening process is made much more difficult for children if there is lots of background noise and they have to work out which set of competing sounds they must listen to. For example, when a child is being told something at the same time as the radio is being played, they must cut out the music in order to listen to what is being said. (Think of the last time you had a conversation with someone in a very noisy environment, such as at a party or in a busy café and how difficult that was to keep your attention).

One key point is to reduce the amount of background noise that children must shut out in order to hear what we are saying to them. This will help develop the vital skill of understanding, which must come before the ability to speak in words and sentences. Research in 2009 revealed that 40% of very young children lived in homes with a TV on most of the time or always[1].   Even if the TV or music isn’t on all of the time, we have to think about what we say to children and make sure it is useful to them.

Modern human adults can often be afraid of silence. I speak to parents who are really responsive and tuned in to their children and they say that they find it difficult to talk all the time and fill the silence; they often feel guilty, but silence has its place. It takes young children seven seconds to process and respond to the information that they hear. Intrinsically, we feel a need to fill in silences, rather than use them as an opportunity to watch, wait and respond to when a child is ready to communicate with us. We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them in that proportion, e.g. listen twice as much as we speak!

Top tips for developing a child’s listening skills

  • Make sure you speak to your child in small, bite sized chunks of information
  • Turn off the TV and radio and dedicate time to talking and listening to each other
  • Do not be afraid of silence – give children enough time to think about what you’ve said and to respond
  • Make encouraging noises and sit attentively with your child – allowing them the chance to speak and respond. Use words such as ‘Wow’, ‘Uhuh’ and ‘Really?’ to encourage a greater number and significantly longer sentences from children
  • Sit facing your child with an interested facial expression to encourage your child to say more
  • Sit quietly with your child and observe, wait and listen to them when they speak or attempt to communicate in another way. Look for the clues that the children are giving us about what they are trying to say.

If you have any questions about how to help your child’s talking then get in touch with one of I CAN’s speech and language therapists. We can give you information and activity packs to help develop children’s language.

Visit www.ican.org.uk/help or call 0207 843 2544 to arrange a free call back from a professional.

Amanda Baxter, I CAN Communication Advisor