Listen Up! - Developing Strong Listening Skills with Your Toddler

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Listen Up! - Developing Strong Listening Skills with Your Toddler

By Nikki VanOeveren, M.S., CCC-SLP

Here is a secret not many people know or, at least, realize. Listening is a trained skill. That’s right, just like learning to read or swim, listening must be taught in order to be done well. Certainly you could name several adults you know right now who have no hearing deficits whatsoever, yet seem to have a very difficult time listening—“In one ear and out the other,” so the saying goes. That’s because listening and hearing are not the same thing. Listening requires a person to attend to and process what he hears. That attention to information and processing of language are the components of listening that require specific training from an early age.

Consider the listening demands our children experience in school. In just one or two short years, your toddler will be off to preschool where he will be given academic instruction from a single lead teacher in a room bustling with other children, visual stimulation, and competing background noise. As early as second grade, learning begins to take the form of lecture-based instruction, where a large group of students are required to attend to a lesson and follow directions with multiple steps over an extended period of time. As our children move through their academic careers, the demands on listening increase. Yet, nowhere along the way is listening taught. The educational model expects children to enter school already having strong listening skills, just like they are expected to know their letters and colors.

Toddler Listening Skills: The Milestones

What should listening skills look like in toddlers? According to the American Speech and Hearing Association, from one to two years of age, children should be able to follow simple, one-step directions (“Go sit down.”), answers simple questions, (“Where’s your hat?”), point to pictures in a book or objects in a room when you name them (“Can you find a ball?”), and sit and listen to a story, song, or rhyme.

However, typically by age three, an explosion of language occurs. Children go from having a vocabulary of approximately 200-300 words at twenty months to having a vocabulary of 1,000 or more words by age three. This rapid growth in language is also reflected in a rapid growth of listening skills. By three years children should be able to follow two-step directions (“Get your milk and put it on the table.”), understand differences in meaning (“go vs. stop”, “in vs. on”, and “big vs. little”), understand directions using some basic adverbs (“Go quickly”), and enjoy listening to stories for longer periods of time.

What the Milestones Miss: The Art of Listening

The problem with milestones is that they encourage a “check-the-box-off” culture of gauging skill acquisition. If you ask your toddler to go get his shoes and put them away, can he do that? Sure. Check the box. Milestone achieved. But, did he do it the first time you asked? Did he stand still for a moment and look at you while you were asking him to do it? Did he do it directly or get distracted along the way? Was he truly being a good listener?

The art of listening is a collection of skills that allows the listener to attend to spoken information and process language effectively. It is a state of “readiness to listen.” While adults may be working on the art of listening their whole lives and take several steps to do it, our toddlers truly only need two directions to help them be better listeners: Quiet Body and Eyes on Me.

Teaching Quiet Body

Quiet Body is a direction that lets your toddler know it is time for his body to be still and ready to listen. During Quiet Body, his whole body should be relaxed, allowing for his ears, eyes, and brain to take in information. Your toddler may be standing or sitting; it doesn’t matter. What is important is that he is facing you. For our more active toddlers, this direction can be extremely challenging. That’s why it is important to practice Quiet Body so that he understands your expectations.

  1. Explain Quiet Body—tell your toddler exactly what you are looking for when you say, “Quiet Body.” Move your toddler into position of facing you and describe how his hands, feet, and head should be still and relaxed.

  2. Freeze Dance—play a game like freeze dance by turning on music, dancing wildly, then turning off the music and declaring “Quiet Body!” When the music is off, your toddler should be facing you with quiet legs and relaxed arms.

  3. Spontaneous Quiet Body—while you and your child are doing anything - coloring, playing with blocks, getting dressed, call for “Quiet Body!” This teachers him that no matter what you are doing, when he hears you say, “Quiet Body,” it is time to pay attention.

  4. Praise—in quieter moments of the day, such as reading a book, watching TV, traveling in the car or stroller, praise your child for having a Quiet Body. Describe what he is doing that you like, “I like the way your legs are quiet and your arms are still….”

  5. Model—it is easy for us to address our children while in the process of doing something else. There is so much to do and not enough time to do it! However, it is equally important that we model good listening if we have an expectation for our children to have good listening skills. So, even if you’re in the middle of flipping pancakes or working on the computer, stop what you are doing, turn to your child and say, “I have a Quiet Body, now. I am ready to listen to you.”  

Teaching Eyes on Me

Eyes on Me is a direction that lets your toddler know it is time for his eyes, ears, and brain to be focused on your words. Toddlers are developmentally incapable of multi-tasking. If they aren’t looking at you, they aren’t listening to you. Eyes on Me ensures that you have the full attention of your toddler and signals to your toddler that he should be listening to you. For our more headstrong toddlers, this may be challenging. However, with consistency you will be able to achieve the focus you are seeking.

  1. Explain Eyes on Me—tell your toddler exactly what you are looking for when you say, “Eyes on Me.” Get down on your child’s level, look into his eyes, and say, “ When I say Eyes on Me, I want you to look at Mommy’s face.”

  2. Eyes on Me Peek-a-Boo—play a game of peek-a-boo using a blanket or your hands. When your toddler’s eyes are covered, say, “One, two, three, eyes on me!” Reverse the game and hide your eyes. If your child is at the one or two-word level, have him say, “Eyes!” or “Eyes, Mommy!”

  3. Wait for Eyes on Me—although it can be difficult, requiring your child’s eye contact before giving a direction is a foundation of listening. Not only does it tell you that he is ready to listen, but there is also less ambiguity concerning whether or not he actually heard you. If your child is having difficulty giving you the eye contact you are requesting, first check for Quiet Body. If his body is quiet, give the direction “Eyes on Me,” again. Third, tell him that you are going to count to three and you want Eyes on Me. Count slowly. If he is still not looking at you, tell him you will wait for Eyes on Me. Be patient. This request will soon become so automatic that you will wonder how you ever got along without it.

Best Practice for Listening Skills

Now that your toddler is ready to listen, what can you do to improve his listening skills over time? How can you increase his listening language and reduce his dependency on visuals.

  1. Use Fewer Gestures—we gesture without even knowing it. It’s part of our culture. However, those gestures give clues. Your toddler may or may not truly understand the direction you are saying, but rather be responding to the gesture you are showing. For example, if you say, “Go sit down,” and point down to the rug with your finger, does the child understand “sit down” or are they responding to your gesture? One way to be certain is to simply refrain from gesturing. Although it may be difficult at first, you’d be surprised how often you use your hands. Even so, try giving your toddler eye contact and then the direction using only your words: no hand gestures, no looking in the location you want them to go, no nodding. By using only your words, you are taxing your toddler’s listening language and requiring him to focus on your message.

  2. Increase Complexity—as you see your child’s listening success, slowly increase the complexity of requests. Move from “Go get the block,” to “Go get the red block,” to “Go get two blocks from under the table.” By increasing your language complexity, your toddler must focus more intently and for longer periods of time; these are both prerequisites for academic listening skills.

  3. Offer Multiple Opportunities to Get it Right—Let’s say your toddler didn’t follow your direction exactly. You asked, “Go get your blue coat” but he brought you his grey coat. Not so bad; he brought a coat! Assuming he knows the difference between the two, try giving your toddler an opportunity to get the direction correct, before you fix it yourself. Say, “This is the grey coat. Go get your blue coat. I want your blue coat,” putting extra emphasis on the word “blue.” By giving your child another opportunity, you are teaching him to keep trying without telling him explicitly that he was wrong. It also allows success of language learning and an opportunity for praise.

  4. Praise—it goes without saying, but praise of focused and accurate listening is the best way to encourage good listening skills. Using phrases like, “Excellent listening!” or “Thank you for listening,” lets your toddler know he is doing what is expected of him.

  5. Consistency and Troubleshooting—after cleaning up one day, you have asked your toddler to put his blocks back in his room on his toy box. But, when you go check up on his progress, he has left the blocks in the middle of the room. How can you teach him to listen to all the parts of your message? First, bring the blocks back out and using Quiet Body and Eyes on Me, give him the direction again. If he hasn’t done it correctly this time, given him the direction again, highlighting the part he is missing: “Put the blocks in your room on the toy box.” If it is appropriate for your toddler’s language level, try and get him to repeat the direction back to you or, at least, the problem portion of the message. If he still doesn’t get it right, do the direction with him repeating the parts of the direction as you are doing it. Finally, tell him it is his turn. Bring the blocks back out, give him the direction again, and walk with him as he completes it by himself. Refrain from gesturing. Praise for being a great listener. While it seems like a terribly tedious process, consider the next time he plays with blocks. If you give the same direction in the same way, what is the likelihood he has improved his listening language and can now complete the task without your help?

  6. Highlight Listening—bringing attention to sounds in your toddler’s everyday environment is a fantastic way to highlight listening and augment vocabulary. If a fire truck goes past your building, point to your ears and say, “Oh! Did you hear that? What was that? A siren!” Place a timer in the kitchen and when the bell goes off, it’s dinner or TV time. By bringing attention to sound, you are helping to balance auditory learning with our very visual world.    

​Strong listening skills are an essential part of a toddler’s language growth, social success, and readiness to learn. However, developing these strong listening skills is not necessarily innate. Toddlers need to be taught how to focus on the speaker, process language of increasing complexity, and be accountable for their listening. By giving your toddler strong listening skills, you are setting him up for a lifetime of academic and social success.   



Nikki VanOeveren is a state and nationally certified school-based speech-language pathologist and teacher of speech and language disabilities. She specializes in Auditory/Oral therapy for students who are deaf or hard of hearing and who use cochlear implants and/or hearing aids. She is also Mom to a joyful two-year-old boy.


This article was authored with information from the following sources: http://asha.org/public/speech/development/chart.htm and Lanza, J.R. & Flahive, L.K. (2012), Guide to communication milestones. East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems, Inc.    


05 April 2013 09:32
by By Nikki VanOeveren, M.S., CCC-SLP