Ever drifted off in a meeting and been jerked back to the present moment by someone asking you a question you can’t answer because you weren’t paying attention? Or perhaps you stopped someone in the street to ask directions, only to glaze over as they deliver five minutes of detailed instructions that you just can’t follow? If so, you’ve experienced just how tricky listening can be.
It’s an often-underrated skill. Whereas hearing is being able to notice and register sound, listening is being able to focus on what we hear and pick out the relevant information. Although the ability to do this can vary for all of us, depending on the situation or our mood, some children with special needs may struggle with listening, completing schoolwork or socialising.
Many Reasons Why Listening is Challenging
Gillian is a SEN teacher and tutor with many years’ experience working across a wide variety of specialisms. She studied how to develop listening skills as part of her master’s-level qualification in teaching English as a foreign language.
“There can be lots of reasons why a child finds listening difficult,” she explains. “They might be very bright but if they’ve got ADHD, for example, they may have other things on their mind. They may be thinking about drawing, computer games, cartoons or whatever else is their priority at that moment.”
In addition, she says, many children, especially those with autism, may find it difficult to focus on topics that don’t interest them, while other kids may have problems with processing auditory information and need this delivered in smaller ‘chunks’.
Listening Can be Improved
Despite these obstacles, listening skills can be worked on Gillian affirms. In the first instance, she says, it’s helpful for adults to reduce unnecessary noise around children who struggle to focus on aural information. “Some schoolteachers use body language instead of words to get pupils’ attention. They raise their hand or signal ‘3-2-1’ with their fingers as a countdown to indicate that everyone needs to be quiet,” she points out. “In the same way, it can be helpful for parents and teachers to cut out superfluous chat. If you talk too much, some kids will zone out. Look at your own communication-style – do you try to fill pauses in conversation or over-compensate if a child doesn’t say a lot? Try stepping back and see what they offer you.”
Teachers can set exercises that give children the chance to practise picking out specific information. This might include, she suggests:
- Giving students a list of questions to focus on before they watch a short film or listen to a piece of text spoken aloud, or;
- Fill in the gaps on a worksheet while they listen.
It’s useful, she adds, if the lesson content covers subjects that are interesting to the young person. Marking verbal instructions with words such as, ‘First’, ‘Then,’ or ‘Lastly’ can show a pupil when a new piece of information is coming up.
Supporting Listening with Other Skills
Using visual prompts alongside listening activities – subtitles on a video, for example, or PECS (picture exchange communication system) cards for children who struggle with speech – can reinforce what students are hearing, Gillian says. Music, she adds, can also be a fun way to encourage focused listening.
“Music can be relaxing and opens up new neural pathways,” she explains. “I had one student who was severely dyslexic. We used to sing along to videos of his favourite songs with the lyrics on subtitles. He loved it and made so much progress, especially with colloquial language, it was incredible!”
Listening and Social Skills
Of course, listening isn’t just for the classroom – it’s also a crucial factor in social interaction, Gillian explains, pointing out that parents can prepare children for the sorts of chit-chat they might expect to hear in different scenarios. “You can sit round the dinner table, for example, and say, ‘This is what we do in this situation. We ask people how they are, we ask someone to pass the salt and pepper’.”
And because some kids may struggle with eye-contact, it may be difficult for people outside the family to know whether that child is paying attention. “If possible, parents could encourage the child to say to other people, ‘I am listening, even though I’m not looking at you,’” she says.
Lastly, there may be one factor that teachers and tutors can do little to correct – their own voice. “Some children with special needs may take a dislike to a person’s voice,” Gillian laughs. “My students usually say they find my voice calming and reassuring but I remember one boy who said it was so relaxing that he wanted to sleep!”