Ways to Encourage Listening and Following Directions

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So much of parents’ frustration stems from children not listening or following directions. Like any other social skill, this is something that can be encouraged and taught.

  • Model – When you are in conversation with your children, or when they are asking you questions, it’s helpful to really listen. This may be putting down your book or your phone. This may be giving more eye contact and providing more conversation back. Really listen yourself.
  • Have their attention first – Before you speak, it is helpful to have their attention first. This might be saying their name, touching their arm, getting on their level, or making eye contact. Like, how teachers might flick the lights or ring a bell.
  • Engage and reflectively listen – This is active listening. In conversation, it’s reflecting back the things you hear. “Wow, that must have hurt your feelings.” It’s occasionally summarizing or checking in for understanding. “You really got it,” or, “that seems like it would be confusing. Were you confused?” It might be just adding words for punctuation, “horrible!” This may also be asking for more detail or asking a question to encourage them to continue. All of this requires that you keep up.
  • Encourage real conversation – So often, we spend our time telling children where to go and what to do. We tend to be really boring. If you want kids to listen more, you might need to vary your conversation and talk about more interesting things. You might engage them in conversation about their favorite activities. You might ask about their friendships or collections. You might open conversations to bigger topics like politics and religion (in age appropriate, non-lecturing, ways).
  • Provide an answer either way – When children ask a question or make a comment, it is good to give a response as best you can.
  • Read aloud everyday – Listening to stories encourages children to listen in general. You might occasionally ask them about the stories they hear. You might encourage them to tell their own stories or consider if a character had made a different decision. Books on tape, CDs and Audibles all count to build listening skills.
  • Avoid repeating yourself – When you are asking your child to do something, avoid repeating yourself. The idea is the more you repeat, “put on your shoes,” you are teaching them to tune you out. Here is a blog post about how to not repeat yourself.
  • Give positive directions – This is saying, “walking feet,” or, “slow down,” rather than, “no running,” or, “don’t run.” This is saying, “ask for a turn,” or, “wait for a turn,” rather than, “no grabbing,” or, “don’t grab.” Here is a blog post about positive directions.
  • Give a direction with just a word or two – When you can, this might be, “bed,” or, “sit here,” or, “quiet.”
  • Give a visual cue with the direction – This can be as simple as a point in the right direction, or as much as drawing them a picture of the thing you are asking them to do. This can add emphasis to the direction or give a visual reminder when you draw a picture.
  • Cook, bake, make craft kits or model cars together – Highlight the importance in each of following the directions. Helpful to have a written list, discuss it before and check directions off as you go.
  • Read about it
    • Listen and Learn by Meiners
    • Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns to Listen by Binkow
    • Listen Buddy by Lester
    • Lacey Walker Non-Stop Talker
    • Worst Day of My Life Ever by Cook
  • Play listening games
    • What Animal? What Sport? – You pick one, and they ask questions to figure it out.
    • 20 Questions – You pick a person, place or thing, and they ask yes/no questions to figure it out.
    • Simon Says – You give lots of directions starting with “Simon says…,” that they follow. You surprise them with a direction that leaves out the “Simon says…,” and they should really listen and not follow it.
    • Freeze Dance – Music plays, and when you turn it off, they freeze like a statue.
    • Animal Dance – Music plays, and you call out what animal to move like.
    • Robot – You are the programmer, and they are the robot. You give one specific direction at a time to move them through an activity.
    • Crazy Directions – At the playground, you might say to a 4 year old, “run to the bridge, jump across the bridge, touch the red tricycle and crawl back.” You can repeat this and then say “ready, go!” and see if they can keep it in working order. If not, prompt them along, and you might try fewer directions the next time. If they can, maybe give an additional direction the next time.
  • Play listening board games
    • “Hullabaloo” by Cranium (audio not DVD version)
    • “Guess Who?” by Hasbro
    • “Noodleboro Pizza Palace Listening game”
    • “Mystery Garden” by Ravensburger
    • “Look Who’s Listening” board game
    • “6 Speaking and Listening Board Games”
    • For any board game, you might read the directions (at least the highlights) together before you play.  Refer back to them as needed while you play, and talk about the importance of following the directions.
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Transitions Can be Easier

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There are so many transitions built into a family’s day. For children, this may include the shift to getting dressed, leaving the house, stopping play, finishing projects, cleaning up, coming to the table for meals, going upstairs for bath and settling in bed for sleep. All of these steps can have small transitions within which can be a lot.

Real and consistent warning – Most children transition better when given warnings. It is helpful to use the same language and mean the same amount of time for each warning. When my girls were younger I said, “we are done in five minutes, finish up,” and, “one more minute, do your last thing.” When I said this, I was also sure to say five minutes and mean five minutes. If sometimes it meant two minutes because I was in a hurry, or it meant twenty minutes because I got distracted, the warnings weren’t as helpful. Even before children can tell time, the consistency is helpful.

Additional cues – It can be helpful to build in additional cues. This might be a visual cue like flipping the lights, a physical cue like a transition high-five or an auditory cue like ringing a bell. This is just another consistent signal that it’s time for a transition.

Proximity – If your child tends to ignore or run away at the start of transitions, it can be helpful to stand beside them or even hold their hand just before the transition starts.

Empathy (limit as needed) – This would be saying, “I’m sorry you are frustrated, but it’s time to go upstairs.” When you acknowledge emotions, emotions tend to calm. It’s often helpful to state the limit in a calm way.

Positive directions – This is a reminder to state your directions in the positive. This is saying, “come back and clean up the toys,” rather than, “stop running around.” Here is a full post about positive directions.

Ask their plan or their first step – Asking how they are going to get started can help a child focus on the task and move forward.

Build in choices, challenges and contribution – For going upstairs choices would be, “do you want to walk or crawl upstairs,” or, “do you want to brush teeth first or change into pajamas when you get upstairs?” Challenges would be, “let’s race up stairs. Ready, go!” Contribution would be, “I need a toothpaste squeezer.”

Focus on the good in the next thing – Want your child to stop playing, go upstairs and take a bath? You might focus on how many bubbles they can make with the bubble bath or which toys they’d like to play with in the tub.

Give descriptive praise when it goes well – This would be, “you listened the first time. That is helpful!” or, “you went upstairs so fast. You were super speedy!” You want to reinforce this behavior, so describe the behavior and give it a label. Here is a full post about descriptive praise.

A post on better clean-up times

A post on better morning routines

A post on better bedtime routines

 

 

Ideas for Reading Aloud with Older Children

Leisure time for mother and daughter

The Department of Education encourages parents to read aloud to their children 20 minutes a day at a minimum. The idea is to read aloud to them for longer stretches and more often as you are able. It’s also suggested that you continue to read aloud to your children long passed the time you thought they’d listen. Children who read aloud through high school do better on Verbal SATs than those that read to aloud through middle school, and those who read through middle school better than those that do through grade school.

I know most parents reduce their reading aloud time as children become more fluent, independent readers. The trick is to give time for both. When my older daughter wanted time to read to herself, we added that to the bedtime routine rather than replacing our read aloud time. So they got 20 minutes of read aloud, and an additional 20 minutes of reading books independently.

There are lots of good ideas to help read aloud continue:

  • Keep it part of the daily routine – This way you don’t have to find the time each day, it’s already there. It also makes it expected. If you stop reading aloud for a long stretch of time, children may be more hesitant or think “it’s for babies” when you try to start again.
  • Let your children pick the books – At any age, it is helpful if children feel they have some choice in the matter. Letting them pick the books is an easy way to give this. When the girls were little, I’d read the same books 20 nights in a row if that’s what they picked. Now we take turns choosing chapter books. I almost always pick a classic because they never do.
  • Take turns reading aloud – Once they are fluent readers, it can be nice to take turns during this read aloud time.
  • Occasionally read more active participation books – This might be a fill in the blank book or a quiz book. This might be something along the lines of the Choose Your Own Adventure series that let the reader make plot decisions throughout the book.
  • Shake up the types of books – As they are older, some children are drawn to biographies or sports books, others to how-to books or articles from magazines.  You might also try poetry or plays. Any reading is fine.
  • Read picture books longer – Once you start chapter books, it’s good to include picture books occasionally. There are so many picture books that really are aimed at older kids. You might try Stripes or Mr. Peabody’s Apples.
  • Occasionally, read their homework aloud – Not often as they need to be doing this reading, but I think it’s fine once in a while to read their homework aloud. I’ve done this, especially when they are struggling with a topic or the reading seems particularly dry to them.

Any other ideas? Please share them here!

Give Children Positive Directions

Mother and baby girl playing with toys in living room.

Parents often focus their language on stopping behaviors. They attempt to direct their children in the negative. Let’s say a child grabs a toy from another. The first thing most parents say is “no grabbing,” “don’t grab,” or “stop grabbing!” When directions are stated in the negative, children have to turn that language around and figure out the opposite behavior. Parents are much more effective when they give positive directions such as “wait for a turn,” or “ask for a turn.”

It’s like if I were to say to you, “okay, are you listening? Stop sitting.” Likely, you hesitate. You might even ask, “does that mean you want me to stand?” It would be so much easier for you if I said, “okay, are you listening? Stand up.” That is an easy direction to follow because it is stated in the positive. You can do that right away.

It is near impossible for children under three years old to turn that language around and figure out the opposite behavior. We were at a local petting zoo recently when I overheard a mother clearly say to her two-year-old who was holding a cup of goat food, “now, don’t put that on the ground.” He gave her a confused look and slowly put the cup down on the ground. The mother was shocked that the child was doing the exact opposite of what she had just said. He was trying his best to follow directions. The child wasn’t able to turn the “don’t” around, so he did the best he could with the rest of it. He understood “put that on the ground.” It would have been better to give positive directions like, “hold on to that cup,” or, “keep that cup in your hands.”

When one child has a toy, and another child wants it, what is it that you want that child to do in that moment? Stated in the positive, you might want them to wait for a turn, ask for a turn, find something else to play with, find something to trade, come find mommy or ask for help. What if that child has already grabbed the desired toy? Stated in the positive, you might want them to give that back, drop that toy, apologize for taking it or hand it to mommy. There are lots of possible behaviors that are stated in the positive regarding grabbing toys. Each of these examples provides a solution to the problem.

There is also the golden rule of, “what you focus on you get more of.” When you say, “no grabbing,” or, “don’t grab,” or, “stop grabbing,” all of your language is focused on grabbing. The message to the child is; “grabbing gets attention.” By putting your attention here repeatedly, you may mildly be reinforcing that behavior to happen again.

If children are unable to turn the negative language around to figure out the opposite, you have left them with what is called a behavioral void. They know what not to do, but they have no idea what to do. So, a day later they want a toy that another child is playing with, they may hesitate when they remember your negatively stated direction, “don’t grab!” But, you have not replaced the behavior by teaching them what to do; instead, you have left them hanging for the next go around. When you state your directions in the positive you are filling in that void. If you repeatedly say, “ask for a turn,” while your child plays with others, you are filling in that void.

When a child is climbing on the book shelf, avoid saying, “no climbing,” or “don’t climb,” leaving them at a loss. Focus your language on the behavior you want by saying, “get off the shelf,” “keep your feet on the floor,” “stay down,” or “play over here.” Any of these are far more likely to work in the moment, and, with repetition, help to curb the behavior.

In Positive Discipline, Nelsen reinforces this idea by stating that solution focused language helps children to do better the next go around. It focuses children on what to do rather than what to stop doing. Once children are old enough, it can be beneficial to have them suggest solutions to ongoing problems. They are more likely to buy into the process if they are a part of it.

 


 

Answers to Typical Two-Year-Old Struggles

Recently I got an email from a mom with several questions asking how to respond to several of her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s behaviors. The start to each of the answers was, “this is common at two…”  I am going to write a paragraph about what it is to be two-and-a-half years old, and then answer the specifics in turn.

At two-and-a-half years old, most children move through a stage of saying “no” all day long and are driven to do the opposite of the things you request. This struggle stems from their developing sense of self. They are learning they can voice an opinion and are testing the power that opinion has. As challenging as it can be, you want your children to move through this. They are also starting to realize independence and how to speak up for themselves. At two-and-a-half years old, they are starting to experience bigger and more complex emotions such as fear and jealousy. They are starting to have broader social interactions such as sharing space in a busy preschool classroom. All this while lacking a real ability to deal effectively. Their thinking is big, but their language, size and skills are limited.

1. When I am speaking on the phone, texting or emailing, she will act like she is hurt, cry and make other loud noises.

Answers: First, if you can, save the texting and emailing for when she is asleep or otherwise occupied. If there is a 30 minute stretch of a tv show, that’s the time to text away. I get things can’t always wait, but when they can it’s a nice practice. Second, plan for distractions. If you know you are going to be on a 20 minute call, run some water in the sink and let her “wash dishes” or break out the play-doh set that she can mush for a while. Third, teach her how to politely interrupt like standing in front of you waiting or touching your hand quietly. I wrote notes on how to teach that in this blog post: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/teaching-patience/.

2. At times she will say she wants something like a stuffed animal. When I give it to her she says, “I don’t want it,” and backs away from me and it. Then I will move on to do something else, and she will jump up and down saying, “no, I want it! I want it!” When I try to give it to her again, she backs away. Now I am mad. How do I break this cycle?

Answer: Recognize she is still learning the power of words and how these social dynamics work. The answer is to see it coming as best as you can. When she backs away the first time say, “I can see you changed your mind, and you don’t want it now. I am going to leave it out for you right here in case you change your mind again,” and then just leave it. If she starts to jump around say, “it is okay to change your mind. You are welcome to have it,” just avoid picking it up again. The key is to stay completely calm and disengage yourself while allowing her to make decisions.

3. One day a week, my parents watch her. They mentioned that all goes well during the day, but when I pick her up at 5:00 p.m. she acts totally different. She gets clingy to me, whines, forgets all their rules and runs amok.

Answer: This is totally normal from grandparents, babysitters or preschool teachers. Children tend to be better behaved for others. The silver lining is just that, they are better behaved for others, so their time away is a bit smoother. First, be ready for it. Let your parents know it’s normal and have a plan to spend the first 10 minutes you are there giving her undivided attention. Yes, greet your parents, but let her talk with you about her day and show you anything important, maybe play a quick round or two of hide’n’seek. Many children at this pick-up transition long for a bit of realtime. If it’s given, they can relax a bit, so you can then more peacefully speak with your parents. Second, distract her from it by giving her a job or challenge. As you walk through the door, ask her to be the door locker and then your shoe untie-er or ask if she can quick find grandpa and kiss his cheeck five times. Third, make a quick exit. Ask the grandparents to put everything by the door, call them from the car to have any necessary small talk and whisk her away as you open the door.

4. When we are in the car I usually play children’s music. She likes to sing along. Sometimes I like to sing too, but when I do she says, “no mommy, don’t sing.” My reply is along the lines of, “that’s not nice to say, Mommy wants to sing too. We can both sing together.” I’ve also tried taking turns singing, but then we get stuck on a song two or four times.

Answer: Several options here. First, say, “oh, you want to sing alone? Okay,” and then really enjoy her singing. Second, offer to take turns, but just play each song twice, so you don’t lose your mind. Third, offer empathy and then sing along. This sounds like “oh, I hear you want to sing alone, but right now I’d like to sing too. It’s fun to sing with you,” and then sing. In each case, you are letting her know you’ve heard her and then moving forward. Overtime, and while there may be some upsets, you are teaching her to be flexible to others as well which is a good skill in life.

Teaching Patience

In class, we encourage people to listen to others, to take turns speaking and to wait until a friend is finished, so they avoid interrupting. It can be helpful to coach children to listen to others and wait for a break in conversation to speak. When children are little, it may work more smoothly to give a visual or physical cue. A physical cue might be a talking stick. You can introduce this at dinner time. Take a popsicle stick or something similar and discuss how whoever has the stick is the speaker and others must be listeners. Practice passing the stick regularly and develop a cue they can give if they need the stick next. This takes practice, but it quiets the table and gives everyone time to speak and actually be heard.

I had a mom in class who taught her children that if she was on the phone or speaking with someone and they needed her, they should put a hand on one of her hands, she would then put her free hand on theirs to let them know she felt the touch. This exchange of hands was a signal to mom that the child wanted her attention, and a signal back to the child she would get to them as soon as possible. For this to work well, the first 10 or 15 times, the mom immediately following the hand exchange said, “excuse me, my child needs me,” turned to the child and said, “I felt your hand, how can I help you?” The child has learning to trust the system. After several immediate successes the idea is to gradually add a bit of time. Start with a 5 second delay before you turn and speak with the child, a few times later a smile and a 10 second delay before turning to the child. Gradually work your way up to a few minutes or more.

If waiting for you on the phone or computer is often problematic, you might give them other things to do such as a writing pad beside the phone to communicate that way or just activities they can quietly do to fill their wait time.

After each time they successfully wait, draw attention by saying something like, “wow, that was a while to wait. You were so patient!” You might also highlight when you or they are patient about waiting in life. Talk about how it was nice to have pleasant conversation waiting in the grocery line, or how they were able to wait for a turn on the slide at the playground.

Want Kids to Listen? Stop Repeating Yourself!

It’s an all too familiar scenario…

Mom is almost ready to leave, children are still coloring in the kitchen. Mom says, “hey, time to get your shoes on, and could you turn off the tv, please?” Mom keeps moving to put the breakfast dishes in the sink. Children ignore mom’s request and keep coloring. Mom walks over to gather her things, turns off the tv herself and says, “really, get your shoes.  We gotta go.” Children continue coloring. One child looks up briefly, sees mom looking through her purse and checking her phone, so back to coloring. Mom, without looking up says, “shoes.” Mom, putting on her coat snaps, “shoes now! (five seconds pass) That’s one….(five seconds), two….(five seconds), do you hear me? I am counting! GET YOUR SHOES!” Crayons drop, kids move towards shoes. 

Parent asks child to do something. Child ignores request. Parent repeats request. Child ignores. Parent escalates. Child ignores. Parent, who was initially calm, loses it and yells. Child listens and moves into action. Parent is frustrated that child doesn’t listen.

The unfortunate thing if you are in this cycle is you are actually teaching your child to NOT listen. By repeating the request, you are directly teaching them to tune you out. The child is learning that, when you start talking, you are going to say it two or three more times, so they wait. They learn that they have at least a few more minutes from the first request before they have to listen. They learn you are unpredictable, sometimes you really mean it, and sometimes you just don’t, so they watch.

To break the habit of repeating yourself, you have to make a new habit. The idea is to say it once, and then expect them to listen. Accept that at least initially, you may have to move into action and help them to listen. You may have to help them at first because together you’ve created the pattern of tuning out. So let’s say you buy in, and starting now, decide to say things once and expect children to listen. For starters, the new pattern is going to fail. Tomorrow morning, you get their attention and very clearly say, “it’s time to go. Put on your shoes, please.” They are not likely to listen as listening the first time is not the familiar habit. Rather than repeat and frustrate yourself, move into action. Take child to shoes, or take shoes to child, and get them started. You can still give them choices about which pair of shoes or which step to sit on. You can give them a challenge to put them on before you sing the alphabet. You can still be polite and say please. The point is, you can still talk, just avoid the repeated asking them to put on their shoes again. Hopefully you will be less frustrated. Even if you have to stop what you are doing to help, at least you only said it once.

Have faith that you are building a new and better habit. It should only take a few weeks before a six-year-old starts to realize, “oh, you are only going to say things once. You actually expect me to listen.” With a two-year-old, it can take until they are three, but it is a far better habit to be in as a parent, to say things once and expect listening than to start down the path of repeating to be ignored.

We had a mom in class who said, “I get this, but it’s crazy. I must say 16 times every morning, ‘put on your shoes.’ No one is listening to me, but I”m making four lunches, and I’ve got four boys running amok, and you want me to stop making lunch.” Yes, I either want her to stop making lunches and help them listen, OR, better yet, save her breath and wait until she is done making lunches, and then gather everyone to ask them to put on shoes. Wait until you are in a position to move into action and expect listening. In her current habit she is directly teaching them to tune her out 16 times, making the rest of her day that much harder. Clearly there is a need to change the habit.

Teach Planning and Reviewing towards Self-Control

Planning and reviewing skills are a piece of building attention span and impulse control.  In some of our classes, each week the children have to plan their 15 minute play time.  This includes choosing where they will play (only 1 center each day) and planning three activities to occupy their time.  Teachers check on their progress throughout and help children to meet each goal.  This is something you can easily incorporate at home.

At clean up time, sit for a minute and ask your child to plan the effort.  This includes details such as the order of the tasks and if they will work together.  Draw or write a check list and help them to stay on task.  At the end a pat on the back for completing the list.  A more fun example – ask your child to plan their next playdate.  Invite a friend over for an hour and have child (or children) come up with three or four activities they’d like to do during that time.  Help them manage the time and move through the activities.

It is also helpful to take a plan-do-review approach to outings or other activities.  If you are headed to the pumpkin patch this weekend, take some time to look at pictures from last year or visit their website, print the map and plan your trip together with your child.  Talk about all the things they are seeing and doing while their.  After, call a grandparent and encourage your child to tell them details about the trip.  Review again with your child when you print the pictures.

Teach Them to Listen

There are many ways to build listening skills. There are lots of good children’s books that introduce the idea and importance of listening. A few titles include Listen and Learn by Free Spirit Publishing, The Worst Day of My Life Ever by Julia Cook and the Amelia Bedelia books.

Many games practice listening skills including Telephone, 20 Questions, Robot, Eye Spy, Crazy Directions, Simon Says, Hullabaloo, Guess Who, Clue Jr. or Clue and Noodleboro’s Pizza Palace listening game. As children are older, there is Mystery Garden, Listening Lotto and Sound Bingo. Play games regularly.

We talk in classes about being a good listener by keeping our bodies still, our mouths quiet and our eyes on the speaker. You might check in with children after you speak or have given them directions by asking what you said, for the most important part or for what they should do first. When you ask them to give you words back about what you said, it’s better for it to be their own version rather than verbatim.

Challenge listening by reading slightly longer books with more words and fewer pictures as they grow. Challenge listening with verbal stories or books on tape. Occasionally, practice dialogic reading with your child. When they are younger it is asking questions about the pictures, such as “What is this?” As they are older, it is asking questions about the story such as, “what do you think will happen next?” or, “what was your favorite part?” The idea is to build open discussion around the reading as a habit to increase listening and comprehension.

Take Listening Walks, this is a trip around the neighborhood or on your favorite path with the idea of walking quietly and listening to all the sounds you can hear. Afterward list together all the sounds and talk about how different it is to really listen rather than talk and play.

Article on Teaching Self-Control

I just wanted to share a link to a great article from The New York Times titled Building Self-Control, The American Way by Aamodt and Wang.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/opinion/sunday/building-self-control-the-american-way.html?pagewanted=all

During the next week, I will post ideas and activities to support developing listening skills, planning, goal setting and follow through skills, sequencing, their attention to detail, attention span and impulse control. In agreement with the article, these will all be through play. Here are a few guidelines as you work and play to build new skills:

Avoid Lecture

When you are teaching new skills like goal setting, listening, planning and sequencing, you want to avoid lecturing as much as possible. The best way for children to learn these types of skills is through play and experience. This means if you are teaching listening skills you want to do this through things like puppet shows, role plays, hypotheticals, storytelling, movement games and art projects.

Gradually Challenge

Whatever the concern, start small and work your way up. When children are starting with puzzles, you start with simple patterns and a few pieces, and gradually work the way up to more challenging ones. It is the same with skills like impulse control and listening. These are skills that are best to gradually challenge and grow.

Highlight When They Do Well

With life skills, it can be easy to overlook when things go well. If you have an often impulse child, it can be easy to overlook when they happen to wait patiently in line at the grocery store with you for five minutes. It is those easy moments that you want to reinforce the behavior. Notice that they did well. It’s best to describe the behavior back to them, “you waited to quietly, that was helpful!”

Have fun and grow!

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