The importance of listening

May 12, 2017 by admin in Speech Therapist,Speech Therapy

Giving children a voice: the value of listening
By Jemma Vella, Words First Speech and Language Therapist

“Mum, mum, mum, mum, mummmmm, MUM!”

Despite our best intentions, it can be difficult during our demanding home and working lives to take the time to truly listen to children and young people. Whether a busy parent, teacher or youth worker, we must never underestimate the value of actively listening. For children with speech, language and communication needs in particular, it can be difficult to express what they need to say, so we must create opportunities for them to share their experiences, views and concerns.
Why is it important to make time to listen?

Firstly, children learn the value of communication through their interactions with others. Allowing children time to talk encourages social interaction and teaches vital skills such as attention, listening, turn-taking, and empathy. Dedicating time to speak and listen with one another equips children with essential life skills. Secondly, it can take a lot of courage for children to open up to adults about something that is worrying them. It is important to develop a culture at home and in school, whereby everybody can share and be heard1. If they are used to ‘checking-in’ regularly and chatting to significant adults, then there is one less barrier for children to overcome. As the adage goes, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’, and science agrees! Verbalising negative feelings helps to soothe our brains’ emotional responses.2 If children are unable to share their feelings verbally, there is a risk that they will display them in other ways, including challenging behaviour3.

How do I make time to listen?
“There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing” (G. K. Chesterton).
What is important when sharing and listening, is the quality of time spent together, not the quantity. In order to listen effectively, we must take an opportunity to switch off from other things and commit to hearing what is said. As a parent, it could be during the school run, meeting at the school gate or over dinner; whilst busy teachers might take time to greet pupils briefly as they enter the classroom or ask about their weekend plans as they leave on a Friday. Young people can be very intuitive and have commented about adults who ‘actually care’ about their responses to the questions they are asked.

What if it’s not the right time?
It is not always possible to drop everything and listen right away, especially since we know that quality listening time is important. Therefore, it is better to acknowledge that the child needs to speak to you and offer a suitable time and place to do so, e.g. ‘I’d really like to hear more about what happened over the weekend to make you feel so tired. I’ll come and find you at break time’. Furthermore, whilst it’s great to be available and approachable, some young people will require boundaries as to when and how you are available to listen.
How do I ask the right questions?

Children with language and communication difficulties might need extra support to share what they want to say:

  • To begin with, elicit information using open-ended prompting such as ‘tell me about it/home/school…’, ‘what happened next?’
  • Ask more specific questions as required. ‘Wh-‘ questions can help, but be aware that ‘why?’ can be challenging to answer.
  • Allow them lots of time to put their thoughts into words, show them you care by waiting patiently
  • If they’re struggling to use spoken words, allow them to draw you a picture or write you a letter about what happened or how they felt
  • Sometimes children and young people won’t have the right words to express themselves verbally, particularly when feelings are intense, such as anger. They may need a safe space to vent their frustrations before they can reflect and discuss the situation

1 – Luxmoore, N. (2015). Essential Listening Skills for Busy School Staff. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
2 – Lieberman, M. D. et. al. (2007). Putting Feelings into Words. Psychological Science, Vol. 18, No. 5, pp. 421-428.
3 – Du Plessis, L. (2014). Raising Happy Children. Metz Press.