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5 Reasons Why You Need to Pay Attention to the Hard Work of Listening

November 9, 2009

photo courtesy of wealhtheow1

Children’s author Sarah Pennypacker has crafted a hilarious, heroic, and curious character of Clementine who captures the hearts of all who share a creative mind, desire to do well fueled by a bit of mischief.  Through the three-book series, Clementine shares examples of how the adults in her life just don’t believe she listens.

“Clementine! You need to pay attention!” the art teacher said one more time.  And just like other times, I was paying attention.  I was paying attention to Margaret’s empty seat.. when she left, she had scrunched-up don’t cry eyes and a pressed-down don’t cry mouth….”

Taken from Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker. Read more about Clementine at Sarah Pennypacker’s website.

Besides hitting home to six to eight year old readers, Sarah Pennypacker also gives adults a literary wink-wink-nudge-nudge as she reminds us that we often don’t think children are listening when they are really making astute observations of their world.

After all, listening is hard.  How many adults do you know are honestly good listeners?  Seriously.  It’s a tough task and most of us multi-task without even knowing we’re doing it.  Why do we expect kids to listen without explicit modeling, practice and affirmation for their good intentions and attempts?

Following directions, acquiring information, avoiding danger, and learning about the world are just a few of the ways children use listening as part of everyday life.  Below are five reasons you really need to pay attention to the requisite skills and on-going efforts involved in listening for both you and your little ones.

1. Listening skills are critical to developing language and learning. From infancy, children listen to family members and caregivers and then begin to model their language. Listening is also critical to learning to read. Children must discriminate individual sounds before they can put letter sounds together to build words.

Educators have long known that listening and paying attention affect a child’s success in school.   The ability to listen and remember affects a child’s ability to learn throughout all curriculum areas. Listening skills begin developing early. At birth, babies turn their heads toward comforting sounds – research with ultrasound indicates that infants hear and respond to sounds while they are still in the womb.

2. Listening is not the same as hearing. Hearing is a physical process in which sound waves create vibrations that are transmitted as nerve impulses to the brain.  Listening is more complex. Listening includes hearing as well as the mental processes of interpreting and absorbing message and storing and retrieving information. Hearing is a sense most people are born with, but listening is a learned behavior. Which leads me to the next point…

3. Listening is a learned skill, honed throughout life.  Listening skills do not develop automatically, as Florence Grunkemeyer states in her article in Business Education Forum (1992), “Effective listening is a communication skill that must be taught to and nurtured among our students.” As educators and caregivers, we can provide many opportunities to promote listening skills in our classroom. “Learning to listen is a prerequisite to listening to learn.” All adults have a responsibility to model and show children what this means. In my room, it means we use “our ears, eyes and hearts” to listen to the speaker.  It’s tough, but after just 10 weeks of school, most of my preschoolers are doing this for a good chunk of the morning.

Here’s what “listening” means to some of us:

“ya use these!” (tugs ears)

“when you do what your mom or parents tell you to do something”

“when someone says STOP and you STOP!”

And why listen?

“cuz listening is our thing”

“So we can play…play with everything!”

“To find our class”

“To hear outside”

4. Listening is all in the family. Listening helps children to play an active role in their families, their classes and in school.  Answering a phone, helping out at home and bringing things into class are all valuable tasks for young children, helping them to feel good about themselves and preparing them for greater independence and responsibility.  Listening is vital in developing relationships with others. Listening to others helps children to work together, to learn how their behaviors affects others, and to share each other’s feelings.  Some children find it hard to think about anything outside themselves.  Others, like Clementine, exhibit true empathy when observing and listening to others.

5. When children feel like they are listen to, and can listen to others, it builds their self-confidence. Being listened to helps children’s self esteem and enables them to be open and express their feelings.  It helps them to develop an understanding and knowledge of themselves as individuals.  It helps them feel appreciated, connected and valued by the folks they care about the most – their family!  How often to you listen, really listen, to your child?  I know I fall short of that far more often than I care to admit!

Now if you are really serious about better listening, here’s some homework.

  • Think about Clementine for a few minutes. Maybe your child is paying attention – to something else.  Join them in that something else and see where it goes. Perhaps there is a connection or there may be something else important that only they notice. Or maybe it’s that you aren’t really sure how to listen to what they are telling you.  Provide other opportunities to model and reinforce solid listening skills. Acknowledge when they use those skills.
  • Do a little self-assessment: Do you really know how to listen? What do you value as a speaker? As a listener? How can you break it down into single steps so it’s a manageable task? Can you economize in the words you use?
  • Looking for inspiration to be a better listener? Check out Story Corp for incredible stories that arise when folks listen to others.  Also check out Howard Wigglebottom Learns to Listen and the site We Do Listen for resources.

I urge you to think about listening and make some minor modifications in how you listen and how you model and teach listening to your children.  We can all do a better job of listening. When we really do listen, there are stories, knowledge, wonder and joy to be had by both the speaker and the listener.

Got something to say on the topic? I’ll listen if you leave a comment below.


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