The author John Holt wisely said, “We ask children to do for most of a day what few adults are able to do for even an hour.  How many of us, attending a lecture that doesn't interest us, can keep our minds from wandering?” The most important aspect of attention and listening skills in the early years is that as practitioners, we have realistic expectations of children’s abilities.

The Early Learning Goal for Listening and Attention, which most children will be expected to reach by the end of their Reception year at school, is:

Children listen attentively in a range of situations.  They listen to stories, accurately anticipating key events and respond to what they hear with relevant comments, questions or actions.  They give their attention to what others say and respond appropriately, while engaged in another activity.

As an Area SENCO, I visited many settings where practitioners were expecting 2 year old children to respond in the above way and identified them as having ‘behavioural difficulties’ when they didn’t.   It is vital that we have a good understanding of typical child development and think: stage, not age.  A child might be chronologically aged 3 but their attention and listening skills might be at a 2 year old level. There can be a range of reasons for this, including:

Lack of experience

Children need opportunities to develop their attention and listening skills through adults spending time with them, encouraging early turn-taking and play experiences.  For a range of reasons, some parents do not have the skills necessary for this and we need to support these parents and build their confidence.

Hearing loss

The newborn hearing screen  helps to identify babies who have a permanent hearing loss but many children under 5 have glue ear, when fluid blocks the inner ear, resulting in an intermittent hearing loss. As early years practitioners, we have a vital role in supporting parents to arrange a hearing test for their child, either through their Health Visitor or GP.

Developmental delay

There can be many reasons for a child’s delayed development and although early years practitioners are required to recognise delays, they are not qualified to make any type of diagnosis. If you have concerns, complete your assessments and observations and share these with parents, working together to decide what should happen next.

How can I support a child with limited attention and listening skills?

  • Reduce distractions such as background music, staff talking or tidying during quieter times.
  • Be aware of too much visual stimulation, such as hanging displays and open resources. Try sitting on the floor and seeing the environment from the child’s point of view.
  • Gain the child’s attention by saying their name before giving an instruction
  • Keep your instructions simple and use visual cues such as photos, objects and gestures
  • Use the child’s interests to engage and motivate them
  • Use music and sounds to signal transition times
  • Have realistic expectations and give specific praise to children for listening well
  • Sing songs using props such as puppets
  • Model the attention and listening skills you want to see: children are always watching us, are you a good example of someone who attends and listens?

If you are concerned about a child’s attention and listening skills and would like further advice, the national charity ICAN has an enquiry service.  Call 020 7843 2544 to arrange a free phone call from one of their speech and language therapists, or you can email your questions to help@ican.org.uk.

About the author

Kathryn is a specialist early years teacher and trainer who has worked with children for nearly 25 years, including 10 years as an Area SENCO. She is a licensed Tutor for ICAN Talk Boost as well as an ELKLAN Speech and Language Trainer.  She regularly writes and delivers courses for early years practitioners on all aspects of SEN.  You can follow her on Twitter @kathrynstinton, find her on Facebook or visit her website for more information.

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