How To Encourage Attention and Listening Skills
Why Are Attention and Listening Skills Important?
Attention and listening skills underpin the development of:
- Turn taking
- Understanding facial expression and intonation
- Recognising speech sounds, and seeing how they are made
- Copying speech sounds
- Play skills
- Understanding language
- Using language
They are a foundation skill in the development of communication and learning.
Development Stages for Listening Skills
- Babies recognise their mother’s voice from birth.
- Eye contact and smiling occur between 1 and 6 weeks of age.
- Babies can turn towards a voice over other noises when they are around 4 weeks old.
- By 9 months, infants can listen to everyday sounds, e.g. the door bell, the car, the washing machine, but the sound that they respond to the most is a voice.
- By 12 months, children can stop and look when someone calls their name.
Development Stages for Attention Skills
These develop in stages following a developmental order. 0 to 1 month: attention is fleeting. It moves from one thing to another and the child is easily distracted. 1 to 2 years: canfocus on activity of own choosing, but finds interruption very hard! 2 to 3 years: can focus on one thing at a time, but he cannot concentrate on what he is doing and listen to an instruction. Adults need to ask the child to stop what he is doing and listen, and then he can return to what he was doing (single channelled attention). 4 to 5 years: The child can now do a task and understand an instruction at the same time (two channelled attention). However, his concentration span may be short still.
What Causes Attention and Listening Difficulties?
There are different possible reasons for attention and listening difficulties. A child might have:
- delays in all areas of their development (developmental delay / global delay)
- glue ear or hearing difficulties
- delayed speech and language skills
- an underlying difficulty, e.g. sensory processing, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- lack of opportunities to develop these skills in their environment
Encouraging Listening and Attention Skills
With young children:
- One to one interactions with your child, e.g. talking to your baby, showing them early toys, lots of eye contact and giving them pauses to make noises back at you.
- Following the child’s lead in play, watching what they are doing and using simple language to describe what they are doing, e.g. to comment on what they are doing. For example, “Brrm brrm, cars driving. Brrm brrm, he’s driving fast! Crash!” Match your language to the child’s level of language, e.g. if he is using two words in his talking, (where teddy? big car, etc), you use two words in your commentary.
- Avoid asking lots of questions. Elklan suggest one question for every four comments as a general rule.
With Children Aged Four Upwards
One to one, in pairs or small structured groups:
- Sit the child opposite you so he can see what you are doing. Make sure he is close to you so it is easier to focus on the activity and what you are doing. Bang a rhythm on a drum, or a table top or a pan and the child has to copy it. Keep your rhythm simple to help him succeed in this task, you can make rhythms more complex as he gets used to the game and is able to remember the rhythms more. To make this more challenging add another person so that the child has to wait longer to have their turn as more people are playing the game.
- Sit the child opposite you and tell him to look at you and do what you do. Say to him, “Look! My turn”. Do an action, e.g. put your hands on your head, and say, “Your turn!” and he has to copy the action. Start off with one action, and gradually increase to two actions and so on as and when you feel he can do this and succeed.
To make this harder, give a simple instruction, e.g. “stand up!” But make the child wait until you say go! Example Instructions:
- Stand up. Go!
- Pat your head. Go!
- Close your eyes. Go!
- Stick your tongue out. Go!
- Rub your tummy. Go!
- Hop. Go!
- Clap twice. Go!
- Turn around. Go!
- Lie down. Go!
- Pull a silly face. Go!
- Close your eyes and hop. Go!
- Pat your head and touch the floor. Go!
To make this more challenging you can make instructions longer so he has to do two things and make him wait longer before you say go!
- Show the child at least two musical instruments, e.g. a shaker and bells. Let him play them, then say, “Close your eyes!” and play one of them, e.g. the bells. Then say, “Open your eyes! Which one did you hear?” and see if he can identify the instrument you played. Make this more challenging by playing more instruments.
- Play looking games to develop attention and eye contact. For example, tell the child to look at you. Put your head down so you are looking at the floor or your lap and tell him to keep looking at you. Wait a few seconds and then suddenly look up! If he is looking at you, and you make eye contact, have a reward, e.g. bubbles, blow a balloon up and let it go. Then repeat this. Make it more challenging by involving another person so that he has to wait for his turn.
- Sing a familiar nursery rhyme or tell a familiar story and make very obvious changes to it and see if the child can correct you! For example, “Twinkle, twinkle little banana!” if they don’t notice, stop and say something like, “Little banana? No! That’s not right! Twinkle, twinkle little …..(leave a pause and see if the child can finish the line)” “star!” “Oh, yes! Little star! Thank you! Let me try again!’ and so on!
Strategies to support attention and listening difficulties for all ages:
- Use the child’s name before talking to them or giving an instruction.
- Minimise distractions, e.g. turn off the telly and music, make sure that only one person is speaking at once. Keep your language simple and pause between parts so that you give extra time for processing language.
- Get down to the child’s level so that it is easier to make eye contact.
- Use visual cues, e.g. objects, pictures, gesture, makaton sign, etc.
- Vary your intonation so that it is more interesting for the child to listen to you.
Keep activities short, play little and often and have fun!