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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.