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They’re Not Listening!

Four excited children are staring at something out of view.
Four excited children are staring at something out of view.

I’ve had many friends, coworkers, and early childhood students tell me “they’re just not listening to me!” I’ll admit that back when I first started working in early childhood, I had different expectations for children “listening to me”. I thought that a firm tone and a serious talk about listening was the answer. It took me a few years to realize that there is a better way to get children to listen and of course, it starts with us, not them.

The first thing I believe about young children is that they are busy exploring and learning! Most of the time, they actually DON’T HEAR US over the sound of their own brain thinking. Check out this article by Eleanor Johnson, in it, she explains the stages of attention children will go through, developed in the 70’s by psychologist Joan Reynell. This theory tells us that 2-4 year olds have difficulty shifting their attention to someone speaking to them and they often need to be looking at the person speaking to be able to hear them.

If we know that children actually don’t hear us sometimes, this means we have to change the way we talk to them, or at the very least make requests of them. This starts with physical changes. To get a child truly listening to you it often takes getting down on their level, trying to gain their eye contact or getting them to pause their body, perhaps giving them a gentle touch to get their attention and offer comfort, and then telling them exactly what to do.

The next change requires a change in our words and our tone. While sometimes a firm and serious tone is required, I find that a gentle whisper of redirection or task required is more beneficial for children for getting them to do what is needed. Then, we have to consider our words. When I say, tell them exactly what to do, this is the most important part! Imagine being four years old in a busy, fun, stimulating classroom and being told, “Okay, clean up!” How many of you have children who have trouble cleaning up? I think it’s because this is such a vague statement, they have no idea how or where to start “cleaning up” but if you tell one child, at his level, to freeze his body and listen to your words, then, “I want you to take all the green blocks on the floor and put them in this basket.” The chances of this child cleaning up will be much higher! Remember to watch this child and offer words of encouragement when he does get the green blocks put away!

I have one child in mind who is always so busy and has plans upon plans in her mind. She drifts through my classroom singing, fidgeting, and rearranging materials. With this girl, I simply walk right behind her with my hands gently on her arms and guide her through the steps of what she needs to get done, all the while talking her through the steps and using “first, then” statements. Shouting across the room at her, giving vague instructions, or assuming she heard my instructions then getting frustrated with her never works.

A woman and a small child with a red toy in their mouth are playing with blocks.
A woman and a small child with a red toy in their mouth are playing with blocks.

Finally, we have to pay attention to what the child is doing and what we’re asking them to do. In other words, why do we need them to listen? What’s our goal? How important is it? Here’s another real life example from my classroom this week. I had one boy experimenting with a roll of tape which to my knowledge, he’s never done before. I saw it as developmentally appropriate for him to be interested in pulling off long pieces of tape and trying to tape random objects together, so I allowed it. Eventually, he started trying to tape off parts of the classroom and children would walk through his tape to get to where they were going. He was so frustrated! I felt like I told him so many times about walkways, safety, picking a new place to tape, etc. But it wasn’t sinking in for him and he continued to tape all over the room with children continuing to accidentally knock it down. So was this child not listening to me, or was his new found love of taping things too strong to hear and understand my words about safety and walkways? I had to stop and think: is this actually a safety issue? Do I need to keep asking him to tape somewhere else, or can I just allow him to explore cause and effect and then guide any social conflict he experiences with peers who accidentally knock down the tape? I chose to let him continue taping while I sat with him and guided both his peers that came near and him with his ideas for what to tape next.

It’s always hard to admit when our actions might be the thing contributing to the problem. However, once we figure out how to ask things of children in a way that works better for them, our lives will become much easier and we will hopefully spend less time repeating ourselves!


Meghan is a born and raised Montanan, mama to a rambunctious toddler and a bonus mom to two amazing preteens. She recently earned a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education. In addition to her position as an Early Childhood Specialist at the University of Montana, Meghan enjoys a variety of odd mix of jobs; nannying, creating and selling travel play dough kits, making essential oil blends for kids, providing families with child guidance on Facebook and Instagram, and now providing ideas and tips to child care providers in partnership with Raise Montana! Meghan is also a content contributor for 406 Families, a site dedicated to connecting families to local events and resources.

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