Listening skills for children

One of the most challenging parts of being a parent has got to be getting your child to listen to you. We have some tried-and-tested ways of getting them to pay heed!


Teaching busy little people to pay attention and co-operate is a challenge. Most of the time they have far more exciting things to do than to listen to you !

But the ability to do as they’re told affects a child’s daily life, especially at school, when being able to sit still, listen and follow instructions is paramount. At home, unquestioning obedience can be a matter of life and death when it comes to road safety and other high-risk situations. And longer-term, the ability to follow instructions helps children to learn self-control and other positive behaviours needed in adulthood.


Since children develop at their own pace, there’s no right time to introduce the concept of following instructions, but a good time to start is in the first year, so that babies can get used to the idea of ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ for safety reasons: for instance ‘No, don’t touch the fire!’

At two years, you can give simple instructions such as ‘Sit down, please’ and gradually build up to more complex requests. Toddlers learn by repetition, so try to be as consistent as you can.

With pre-schoolers, you could try including two components, such as ‘Please bring me the blue cup and put it on the table.’ At this age, you can also introduce the tactic of delaying rewards as in ‘You can watch Peppa Pig once you’ve got dressed’. Stick to your guns and don’t make empty threats!

As children develop and learn more about co-operation, you can offer more explanations for your instructions. But it’s still best to keep things simple. For instance, offer a restricted choice when you are negotiating with your child: ‘Are you going to wear the red or the blue hat?’


According to renowned psychologist Dr Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, most children under seven years old are not capable of fully understanding why certain actions are undesirable or why instructions need to be followed.

This has an impact on how you present small children with important demands which need to be followed immediately. When it comes to safety, you need your child to respond to instructions quickly and without a fuss. If a child is running into the road, you might say ‘ ‘Stop’ or ‘Don’t run’, not ‘Please don’t run into the road’.

‘Please’ and ‘thankyou’ are two of the most important words your children will ever learn, but they may not be appropriate at a moment like this. Some parents hesitate to ask their children to do anything without wordy negotiation and polite explanation, and this may not be especially helpful with very small children. As they get older, explanation becomes more useful. Children from 7 to 11 years are capable of logical thinking and are more open to negotiation and explanation.


1. Make a decision – is this an instruction or a question? Avoid instructions disguised as questions, such as ‘Shall we..?’ or ‘Could you..?’ They give children a get-out clause (‘No!’).

2. Practice telling rather than asking with a friend or partner. We want to be polite so it can feel strange to use terse instructions. Starting sentences with ‘Can you?’ is a hard habit to break!

3. Don’t issue instructions from a distance – they lose their power. Instead, get down to your child’s level, establish eye contact, say their name and only then issue a polite instruction, using words like ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ when it’s not an emergency.

4. Maintain focus while talking to your child. We can’t expect to capture a child’s attention if we’re not giving them ours! And make sure you speak in a calm and positive voice, suggesting children repeat back to you what you’ve said if you’re not sure they took it in.

5. Keep it simple. Instructions should be brief and clear, without long-winded explanation. Tell your child what he should do, not what he shouldn't. Say ‘Please put the bowl down’ instead of ‘Stop playing with that bowl’. Stay with the child until the task is completed.

6. Don’t allow children to deter you by allowing them to continue gazing at TV and other screen games and not engaging. Turn the TV off if necessary while you say what you need to.

7. Relax your sense of timing unless things really need to be done immediately. Most of the time younger children genuinely don’t understand urgency.

8. Be generous with praise. When children co-operate, lavish them with praise. But try to avoid a sting in the tail such as ‘Well done for tidying your toys – it’s a shame you don’t do it more often.’


Try these fun ways of getting children to do as they are asked:

  • Turn instructions into songs, such as a ‘Get dressed!’ jingle.
  • Hide a favourite toy and tell your child how to find it using very simple instructions.
  • Library storytime sessions are a great opportunity to practice co-operating with another adult while sitting down together and listening.
  • Play a game of Simon Says. ‘Simon says please touch your toes. Simon says please pick up Teddy’.
  • Hold competitions, such as ‘Who can do up their buttons the fastest?’
  • Emphasise teamwork and success with praise like ‘We did that really well!’

Because I say so

We all promise ourselves that we won’t use those annoying phrases that our parents did, but despite our best efforts, most of us have blurted out ‘Because I say so!’ or ‘Do as I say’ at some point when the going gets tough.

Clearly, this approach is ineffective when it comes to securing the daily co-operation of your little ones! There are certain times, of course, when it’s entirely understandable, like road safety or accident prevention. In high-risk situations parents will – quite rightly – say just about anything (within reason) to avoid a potential catastrophe.


Most of us spend at least a third of our waking hours daydreaming. In the 1960s, US psychologist Dr Jerome L Singer discovered that children’s daydreaming starts at around two years of age and becomes firmly established during the early school years. Often regarded as a sign of laziness or time-wasting, daydreaming is in fact necessary for healthy brain development – just like sleeping.

Although little daydreamers can find it harder to pay attention to instructions, it’s not all bad news. A substantial body of research links daydreaming with creativity, healthy social development and strong academic performance.

All children daydream and ignore some requests. But excessive daydreaming can be a sign of other problems when children retreat into a fantasy world, use it as a defence mechanism or have an attention deficit disorder. If you’re worried about your child's daydreaming, talk to their teacher.


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