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Ask the Experts

Help! My child won't listen

By Debra Collins, Family therapist

Question:

I have a 6-year-old daughter in kindergarten. Thankfully, she is social and outgoing. But I am now experiencing the downside of this, which is that in the last week she has twice been given a behavior mark at school for not listening to the teacher. She went all the way from August to December with no negative behavior marks. On her report card, which I just received, she achieved the highest mark possible on every single item listed.

Her sudden problem with listening at school is troubling me. At home, my husband and I struggle every day to get her to listen. I have found that I have to say something two to three times before she even hears it; she's always busy playing with her younger sister. It's like she has tuned our voices out. Now the same thing seems to be happening at school.

What do you recommend?

Answer:

I think you may be combining two separate issues. Having a "social and outgoing" temperament does not necessarily result in "not listening" behavior. I think you are on track when you say; "It's like she has tuned our voices out." Repeating instructions over and over to children can be like speaking louder to someone who doesn't speak your language. No matter how loud or how often, the message is stated, it will not be honored if it is incomprehensible to the recipient.

Appropriate listening skills can be learned. Here are some thoughts on how to help your child listen.

  • Use a tone of voice that is respectful yet firm.
  • Avoid repeating by not giving too many directions at once.
  • State the directions in simple and clear terms with reasonable consequences if they aren't carried out.
  • Prevent confusion by not giving directions in the form of a question or favor unless that is what you mean.
  • Make sure that your child is paying attention when you are giving the instruction and that there are no distractions.
  • If you don't think your child heard or understood, ask her to repeat it back to you so that you can clarify.
  • Use positive reinforcement when she carries out your instructions.

A book that you might refer to is How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

One benefit of developing better listening skills at home is that your daughter's behavior will generalize to school. It would be important to share what you are doing with her teacher and find ways to collaborate so that your daughter's new skills are being reinforced consistently.


Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

06/12/2012:
"Just wanted to say good luck with the little ones. We have 3 grown daughters and a just turned 5yr old girl..Every child is very different. We have been the whole way around with the kids personalities...Our 5yr old is extremely headstrong and I am an "old school" parent who will give a spanking or a time out. (depends on the situation). Our older 2 were very docile children, our 3rd child tested every boundry we had..But we learned, it is a tough thing to be a parent. (probably the hardest job is the patience sometimes)...But under 5 - just remember that it is going to be ok.. Children need boundries. They need some form of consistent discipline. (I recommend time outs for minor offenses and a smack on the butt for serious offenses - please make sure that the offense is serious though..i.e. something that can ultimately put the child in danger. like running towards the street, playing with kitchen appliances etc etc) I will leave you with a little chuckle...Our little one ! said something very rude to me and very defiant..I looked straight at her and said in a strong a little louder voice.. "You must have lost your d@#$ mind"..She promptly turned to her father and said, "Daddy, can you help me find my brain"..I was laughing so hard that I completely forgot about the offense. "
02/13/2012:
"I have a 5 year old who is in pre-k and he started off great,but here lately he has gotten into trouble every day it seems. He can't stay still, he climbs on the tables,runs around,he finds it funny and laughs at the teacher when she is trying to correct him,he seems like he is a menis. I have tried everything i can but nothing seems to work. He is a very smart kid with a great smile and out going. I have considered putting him into sports or something to see if maybe that will help any what do i do? "
10/28/2011:
" i am having the same problem sort of except my daughter is a three year old that does not listen to anything i say is very rude and mouthy and talking to her time out and taking things away does not help any suggestions of what i should do she constantly has hissy fits over the smallest pointless stuff "
10/17/2011:
"I have a 6 year old son that does the same thing to me hes in the first grade and i haven't gotten any complaints yet but he wont listen to me at all he also is very mean at home treats me like im a no body to him i don't know what to do anymore someone please give advice "
04/13/2011:
"Did something change at school? Were any new students enrolled in the classroom after December? Children are sometimes more sensitive to changes than we think. If your daughter's behavior has become negative, you may want to review what's changed at home or at school. Kurt Lewin's theory regarding behavior is that behavior is a function of personality and one's environment. B= f(p x e)...Just something to consider. Good luck!"
09/10/2010:
"I have a 5 year old son that started kindergarten this year, he keeps getting in trouble once a week. I have grounded him by taken the T.V and his toys out of his room and it seems like it works for a bit but then he goes and gets in trouble again. I know when he started daycare he got in trouble about the first month he was there until he adjusted to the environment. So far he's only been in school 3 weeks, should I wait maybe another week or so to see how he does? I'm not sure what else to do, I do believe in spanking but trough out he years I have noticed that it doesn't work with him. I have talk to him every time he gets in trouble to see if he has an explanation and he just tells me 'I don't know' He does tell me why he got in trouble but not the reason for not listening in class or talking. Can you please give me an advise of what else I can do. "
08/31/2010:
"I work at a domestic violence shelter, I have worked as a shelter advocate for many years. One of my bigest concerns is Moms always yelling at there children and there children either yelling back or just be defiant. When I try to help by giving some positive advise it pretty much goes in one ear and out the other. My question is, how or what can we as advocates do to guide these families to a more positive way of communicating with there family. Thank you; Susan"
10/6/2009:
"I am happy to know that I am not the only person struggling with this issue. My child is in Kindergarten. She is very strong willed. She is not ADD or ADHD and is not exhibiting any type of clinical behavior issue;however, she challenges the teachers and likes to be in control. She will sit down and do her desk work and she scores really well in her grades, but she struggles with participation and doing what she is told to do by the teachers. I literally talk and talk and talk about the same thing almost every single day....What else can I do?"
05/11/2009:
"OK...this DOES NOT work. I have a child that is not ADHD. I have been very, very consistent with her discipline. I do spank my child, but it is never, never the first option, and time outs work about 90% of the time..but it is that 10% that drives me nuts. Example. Today, she asked to go outside and play. We have a lot of dirt around from flowers as well as a couple of places where water collects. I gave her two instructions: Don't play with water and don't play with dirt. She repeated the 'rules' back to me. She wasn't outside 5 minutes when I saw her playing in one of the flower pots. I told her to come in (she was shocked when I saw her)..I asked her what I did and she repeated it back to me exactly. I sent her to her room for time-out..15 minutes. At the end she stated that what she did was wrong and said she wouldn't do it again. I repeated the rules, she repeated them back. Again, she wasn't outside 5 minutes before I saw her taking a water can and pourin! g water over this and that...when I yelled for her she dropped it and ran. I made her come back in...I spanked her on her bottom. She knew before I spanked her what she did wrong. It was 1:00 on a nice day after 9 days of rain and I had to tell her she couldn't go back outside the rest of the day. She is almost 5 years old and very, very smart for her age...the books don't tell you what to do after the time-outs don't work. I am 100% consistent in my discipline..she KNOWS she will get a spanking on the 2nd violation..so WHY does she do what she wants anyway so soon after hearing the rules and verbalizing understanding?"
09/15/2008:
"Ms. Collins, My five year old started Kindergarten and is having a very hard time with his adjustment.His homeroom teacher seems to have a zero tolerance policy and tends to send him out of the class whenever he makes noise at his desk(tapping he pencil,knocking on the desk). I find this to be a bit extreme(correct me if I am wrong) because I believe it is sending a very negative message to my five year old.He may be naughty but he is very bright. I guess my concern is how to help him settle in. His afternoon teacher is very different and even though he is not working to his potential in that class either he does behave better. I have enlisted the help of the Vice Principal because I am very concernd that my five year old is about to become a negative stereotype. I would love for your feedback. I am a very concerned mother."
11/20/2007:
"I am not sure what getting a behavior mark is but there are many things a teacher can do to get the class attention before giving instruction. If even after getting cues from the teacher for attention she is not atentive then there should be some sort of logical consequence, for example those who pay attention first are rewarded with front of the line or first choice for stickers that sort of thing. "
10/22/2007:
"I have two kids and used to not listening at all. I tried to sit down with them individually and star promoting a need to a good behavior at home and at school. Also, every morming I ask them to tell me what we talked before and make sure they understand the possible consequences at school and at home."
09/4/2007:
"I experienced this issue with my middle daughter and because she is a very kinetic learner it helped to tap her shoulder gently before speaking to her. That physical signal got her attention and allowed her to focus on my instructions."
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