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Top tips for listening

“Listening is one of the most important of all the skills that children need if they are to learn from their environment (the world around them).” Law & Elias, 1969

What is listening? A friend of mine describes it as "the boring bit you have to do before you get to talk again" showing both her extrovert nature and her excellent social skills. Listening is a vital foundation skill for children's language and communication development. Young children's brains are learning to develop these skills and this month we look at what listening is, how it develops and how you can help.

These twin boys are modelling conversation and listening skills at a young age

What skills does listening involve?

Listening goes hand in hand with attention (there’s a reason they’re joined in the foundation stage curriculum). To listen you have to bring your attention to the person speaking and focus on what they are saying, blocking out other distractions. Our brains learn to do this gradually, as we become more able to focus on what someone else is saying and ignore other distractions.

How do attention and listening skills develop?



Birth to 12 months Babies focus on something but very quickly move on to another object. They flit between things.
1 to 2 years Children focus on what they are interested in.
2 to 3 years Children have single-channelled attention – they can only focus on one thing at a time and will need help from an adult to shift their attention to something else.
3 to 4 years Children still focus on one thing at a time (e.g. playing with cars, then turning to look at you). Children are more able to shift their attention but may still need help to focus their attention.
4 to 5 years Children are now developing the skill to carry on what they are doing while listening to you (they have dual attention).
Over 5 years The child’s attention control should be fully mature by this age.

If I skip stages will children learn more quickly?

As with other areas of development (think of children trying to run before they can walk; to have conversations before they say single words) children move through these stages. It's really useful to observe where children are at so that you can identify next steps and the strategies to support these. You can also use these observations to reflect on whether children are 'deliberately ignoring you' or whether they are still developing their attention and listening skills.  

How can I help children develop their attention and listening skills?

  • Be a listener – model listening to children and colleagues. You can demonstrate the skills involved. If you’re listening you’re usually at the child’s level, watching what they’re doing and listening to what they’re saying. You’re also waiting and giving them time. This allows them to talk without pressure and also shows that you value what they’re saying. You can also talk about how we listen and what we need to do to listen. Explaining this to children makes it clear what listening is and how to do it.
  • Know what stage children are at – that way you can help scaffold them and move on to the next level. By knowing what stage children are at you’ll also have realistic expectations for their next steps. Find out more here.
  • When you want children to focus you need to gain their full attention – say their name and wait to see if they respond. If they don’t, try again and if they are absorbed by something else they may need a light touch so that they can turn towards you.
  • Wait – you may need to give children time to focus and respond to you.
  • Try some listening games like going for a listening walk (inside or outside) to see what you can hear. You can take pictures of all these things and try to make the sounds.
  • Think about background noise. Trying to keep your environment quiet will help children to focus on one thing at a time without competition from lots of sounds.

Reflecting on practice

How do you show children you’re listening to them?

Do your observations have information about their attention and listening?

What strategies do you already use to support children’s attention and listening? Do you share these with parents?

Do you give feedback to children about their attention and listening skills (‘Joe, I know you’re listening to me because you’re looking at me’).

Does your planning include a focus on attention and listening?

Listening is a vital skill for learning about and making sense of the world. It is a building block of language and communication that develops gradually and with support from us. For more listening games, take a look at I CAN’s Early Talkers Boxset which is full of activities for children aged 0-5. You can also contact the I CAN Enquiry Service to receive more information, tips and activities from a qualified speech and language therapist.

About the author

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents.  Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant.


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