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Listen Up! Get Kids to Listen

​This information is included in our Guide to Communication Skills. Click here to see the rest of the guide.

Poor listening, or “noncompliance,” is one of the most common concerns expressed by parents of toddlers and school-aged children. Parents often comment that they need to repeat requests or raise their voice to gain their child's attention. A few simple changes in the way parents manage their child's behavior can make a big difference.

WAS THAT LIGHT YELLOW OR RED?
You are the message-sender—the traffic light for your child. Real traffic lights go predictably from green to yellow to red. Imagine if traffic lights changed at random. You wouldn't know when to stop or go! As a parent, the more predictable your signals are, the more predictable your child's behavior will be. When your light is green, children can play and go about their business. But you turn the light yellow when you make a request. If your child doesn't listen (or comply), your light goes to red, warning of an upcoming consequence: "If you don't do this, then — this will happen." The more predictably you show your children that non-compliance brings a warning followed by a negative consequence, or that compliance is followed by positive consequences, the more compliant and predictable your child's behavior will eventually become.

Children love having fun; they want to keep doing it. Once a parent makes a request that ends or prevents fun, children may respond with behaviors ranging from whining to complaining to hurricane force tantrums. If children know that these behaviors can change their parents' ‘signals’, they are likely to continue to use them to get what they want—until they no longer work.

GREEN TO YELLOW TO RED…
When a traffic light works properly, traffic flow tends to be predictable. If children view their parents as being predictable and consistent, they know their light will predictably turn from green ‘go’—to yellow—‘an instruction’—to red—‘a consequence’.

They know that they can decide whether to stop or go and that their choices will lead to predictable consequences.

FLASHING YELLOW...
Some parents make numerous requests and/or threats followed by numerous warnings, with consequences occurring unpredictably, late or never. Once a child knows that a parent's light stays yellow for a long period of time, and may never turn red, there is little reason to stop. Unpredictability encourages children to ignore their parents or become defiant. Parents who become stuck at "flashing yellow" often become frustrated and blow up, imposing more punitive consequences than necessary. Meanwhile, children's negative behaviors escalate with the hope of changing their parents' minds. If you impose lengthy consequences that you are not able to enforce, such as grounding a child for weeks at a time, not following through will teach your child that you don't mean what you say.

GREEN TO RED…
Sometimes, a parent can carry predictability and authority too far. Jumping right to punishment may cause the behaviors to decrease temporarily. However, when this happens, a child is often responding out of fear and may resent the parents because the punishment feels so unfair. Giving a warning allows children the chance to think about the decision they will make, knowing that a specific consequence will happen with whatever decision they make.

Improving Listening

Applying the following steps predictably and consistently will help promote your child's positive listening skills.

Keep calm. This is easier said than done. Think about your past teachers, coaches etc. Those whom you respected most in your childhood likely were the ones who had clear rules and were fair and consistent in their enforcement. They likely did not yell, use physical punishment or offer multiple warnings. Why? Because students respected their predictable rules and the consequences they applied in a caring manner. Remember, you can be calm and firm at the same time. And I don’t know about you, but I seem to have more difficulty learning something, or anything for that matter, when someone is yelling at me.

Praise your child when they follow your directions. Positive, appropriate behavior should not be taken for granted. Look frequently for opportunities to praise good listening as well as all other responsible, appropriate behaviors. Children respond better to parents who "teach" them by responding to both positive and negative behavior.

Be specific. Tell your child specifically the behavior you would like to see and your time frame for completing the request. For example, “please pick up your blocks and put them in the plastic container” is much better than “its time to pick up”.

Be direct. Direct requests are more likely to be followed. Avoid asking questions, especially when you are not offering a choice. For example, don’t say, “Can you pick up your toys” (the answer is obviously no) when you mean “please pick up your toys”.

Don’t Multi-ask while multi-tasking. Parents often ask, “Why do I have to ask my child so many times to do something”. The real question is, why are you asking them so many times? Yelling or, making multiple requests of the same command, will teach your children to tune you out because they will not expect your statements to be backed up by any type of consequence. Also, making a request of your child when you are trying to do a half dozen other things only increases the likelihood that you won’t follow through and that your child will tune you out. If it’s important to you that your child do what you say, then put down the phone, stop what you are doing and let your child know that you mean business.

Avoid long distance communication. Another common form of communication is to yell something across a room to your child, which is usually met with silence or “ok” (translated into, “I heard you but I have no plans to do it”). It is important that your child not only hears what you are saying but that they understand what you want. The best way to do this is to get directly in front of your child, make good eye contact, and make your request. If necessary, have your child repeat it back to you. This way, you will be sure that there is no question as to whether your child heard you. You also will have made it clear to your child that the request is important, because you took the time to tell them directly. Eventually, you will not need to be as direct, as your child’s listening skills improve.

Provide immediate follow through. As soon as possible, provide praise and/or positive attention (e.g. smile, a gentle touch) when your child does what you ask, as well as a negative consequence (gentle guidance, loss of privileges, time-out) when he or she does not. Young children have a very poor concept of time. The longer you wait to react to their behavior, the less effective it will be. In fact, if you wait too long, your child may wonder what you are talking about. Responding immediately will help your child associate their following directions with your positive attention or their poor listening with a negative consequence.

Keep consequences short. Don't "pile it on" when providing negative consequences, especially when a child's inappropriate behavior continues. Keep consequences short. Increasing the punishment, such as taking away one privilege after another until they are all gone, typically results in anger on the part of your child and often leads to poor follow through on your part. Also, you are unlikely to follow-through with larger consequences that require a lot of your time, or result in constant whining and pleading by your children. “Big” consequences don’t result in bigger changes in behavior, especially for young children. Smaller, and more manageable consequences that are applied more frequently will have a bigger impact.

Think "action, not words “. Establish, by example, a strong association between ‘what you say’ and the consequences you apply. Repeating yourself over and over or hoping and praying that your child will do what you ask only dilutes your authority as a parent. In general, “Act, Don’t Yak!”

Pick your battles. Although there may be many behaviors that you would like to change, you will be most successful if you target just one or two behaviors at a time. As you see progress, your confidence will increase and help you persist consistently and predictably with addressing other behaviors.

Use Grandma's Rule. With "Grandma's Rule," a task needs to be completed before a preferred activity takes place. An example might be, "Finish your homework before you play" or "Pick up your toys before you watch TV." Just make sure that the homework is done BEFORE they play, or that the toys are picked up BEFORE they watch TV. Don’t allow your child to negotiate with you on this (e.g. “I promise I’ll do it after I play etc.)

Guided compliance. When simple requests need to be completed quickly, it is often most effective to gently guide a young child through the task. Try "helping" your child pick up blocks, or directing him or her toward a closet to get a coat. Helping means that you provide gentle guidance, not that you do the task for your child.

Consider a time-out. If your child is being very resistant or aggressive, placing him in time-out may allow for time to calm down, and to think about the choices he has (only one actually, but don’t tell him that). A time-out should be brief —a few minutes—with the child then being expected to go directly from time-out to the task. Refusal to complete the task results in a return to the time-out, followed by a return to the requested task, and vice versa, until the task is completed.

Parenting is a challenging, often rewarding work in progress. This article focuses on one small, but important aspect of parenting: helping children to be compliant with requests and demands made of them. Increasing the level of predictability and consistency parents employ when managing their children's behavior will cause not only increased compliance, but also a stronger and more positive relationship between parents and their children.

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