Learning to listen: how to support the auditory skills development

‘He doesn’t listen to me! She is so absent-minded! I can’t find a way to get his/her attention.’ Parents often feel helpless when confronted with a child who is easily distracted and self-absorbed, whilst the only comfort is that such an attitude is normal amongst kids during particular stages of their childhood. Listening is not about obedience to rules or values that parents chose to promote. Listening is about the ability to notice, segregate, process and react to the different auditory impulses. It is also about choosing a particular stimuli for further processing that usually involves learning. A very basic skill to ensure such complex reactions is auditory attention. By encouraging listening skills from infancy, we can also significantly improve child’s speech and language development as well as interpersonal communication.

0- 1 NEWBORNS and INFANTS: ‘LEARNING TO DISTINGUISH’
A newborn doesn’t understand our spoken language except from recognizing their parent’s voice. They begin to understand particular words (such as their own name) between 3rd and 6th month. However, we can support the child’s auditory skills acquisition by changing our voice tone, singing or playing soft music when lulling a child. Parents are also advised to use nursery rhymes with rhythmic movements. When a child begins to vocalize, an adult should copy it in order to reinforce such an important development. The TV should be absolutely excluded from a child’s life at this stage.

1-2 TODDLERS: ‘MASTERING MOVEMENT’
Toddlers are focused mainly on gross motor skills improving such as walking, running, kneeling, climbing, getting up the stairs, jumping, picking up toys without falling. Vocabulary is made up mainly of nouns as a child labels as many interesting things as possible. By the end of this stage, kids can speak between 150 and 300 words and their speech is 50% intelligible. This means that auditory attention is in full swing and verbal turn-taking while communicating with our child should be the main principle. Kids at this age also recognize familiar songs and can raise pitch when asking questions. Thus, recommended activities include identifying whether the toy/speaker is angry, happy, terrified, sad; finding an object that’s associated with particular sound; and noticing the difference between loud and quiet when banging objects or playing simple instruments. It is also a good time to introduce books as a source of interesting, yet spontaneously read stories.

2-3 YEARS: ‘LEARNING TO COPY’
Two-year-olds love to copy adults by participating in home activities like hoovering, dish washing and food preparation. It is also natural for children of this age to copy animal sounds and observe their behavior with gesture imitation. Kids additionally learn how to combine the words into the short sentences and produce the new speech sounds. Awareness of and ability to produce rhyme emerges and speech is 75% intelligible, therefore LISTENING becomes a major skill. It’s a parent role to listen patiently and react when a child asks. Games including series of two related commands are recommended, as are short stories. The TV can be a serious culprit when it comes to a speech delay, therefore it should be still absent from a kid’s life.

3-4 YEARS: ‘LEARNING TO COOPERATE’
A lot of 3-year-olds start to attend a nursery. It’s the beginning of gaining social skills. Suddenly, the world becomes bigger, with many different stories and experiences to deal with. A child is naturally interested in listening to short stories, participating in role-play games, learning short nursery rhymes and singing simple songs. All of these factors add immensely to kids’ listening skills as they become more advanced. Joint singing, book reading and photo discussions can create a great opportunity for a parent to support this process while a child becomes refocused onto another person. The TV may be introduced now, but not for longer than 30 minutes a day.

4-6 YEARS: ‘IMPROVING ALL SKILLS’
Kids become more independent, as they can now play with other children while their parent is absent.
They participate in longer dialog, report on past events, create imaginary roles, use indirect requests, develop narratives and become very intelligible. Their speech is still not perfect but the purpose of it becomes more complex. It’s a reciprocity era, because a child wants to participate in a social life. Auditory skills are focused on decoding others’ intentions, and this is why a parent should be very attentive and responsive when spending time with a child. It’s good to have an everyday routine that is based on communication, like reading a book, sharing a familiar game, drawing etc. As a result, a child learns that sharing experiences is worth the effort. The TV and computer may be only a short distraction from other activities, under strict parental control.

6 AND MORE YEARS: ‘MASTERING NEW POSSIBILITIES’
Schoolkids are familiar with most social norms and try to respect them. Their speech is 100% intelligible, despite occasional omissions or substitutions of consonants. They ask for the meanings of the words and become interested in the particular fields by exploring, for example, dinosaurs, space, cars, rocks etc. Kids at this age should be able to conduct a dialog, recognize and name their feelings, listen to the others, tell stories and share their attention. If this doesn’t occur, then we should quickly check a child’s routines and look closer at their auditory skills. It is possible that a child is lacking proper attentiveness and reciprocal behaviors. Nevertheless, it is never too late to improve them. All tips addressed to younger kids’ parents may help here, but the main remedy must be patience and real involvement. A child will listen to others only when it is listened to by them. Therefore we, as parents, should become an ear for our kids – a role that requires a lot of empathy and time.

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