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Why they don't listen?



All communication is behaviour. Most adults know how it feels to be unheard, to be speaking and have someone tune out or ask multiple times for the same information, they may not have taken down the details first time. Communication is behaviour. If there are challenges with communication, examining what occurred before the communication, what the behaviour looks like and the consequence (ABC) helps to understand how to improve retaining the information next time.


There are many reasons adults may appear not to be listening. With all their skills, access to ways to learn how to retain information, use diaries, phones, alarms, reminders, adults can still forget and adults can respond intentionally, choose not to listen for a number of reasons. A lack of sleep, stress, trauma, brain impairments, can all impact on communication and behaviour. So, imagine being a child whose behaviour is developing through their interaction with you, their environment and experiences. Their communication is being shaped by how they learn to respond.


A child of 2-3yrs is producing around 700 new neural connections every second. That is an awful lot of brain development going on. Often adults try to use logic and reason to rationalise with young children, the difficulty is toddlers and pre-schoolers have not developed the ability to rationalise and reason with adult expectations. Of course this might be very useful with adults, just not a reliable strategy for managing challenges with young children. At this age, the brain is driven with emotions and impulse. Asking a 2 year old why they have responded the way they have (they wanted the biscuit and now you've given it to them they no longer want it) is an interesting adult response. Many adults are still developing how to understand their own decisions to act a particular way. Developing insight is a step in the right direction, however who develops insight for the child if their brain is yet to develop it?


E.g. Ava picked up the paint brush and tossed it at Emily. Immediately the adult responded, grabbing Ava's wrist 'why did you do that?' Ava (2.8yrs) looked with indifference.


Only moments before Ava had been painting and put down the brush to look for a cloth for paint that had spilled on her hands. As the brush was put back, Emily came over and picked it up and began painting over Ava's creative work. Ava found the nearest brush and tossed it.

How could the adult have responded differently?

Showing a 2 yr old, role modelling a calm, consistent and compassionate way of communicating and redirecting the play is far more appropriate and has the capacity to shape the positive outcomes you are hoping to achieve. There are 'teachable' moments when the child's attention is more focussed, it may be a group time or during quiet interactions. You could utilise a story, drawing their attention to how to respond in different situations. Providing opportunities for a child to develop appropriate responses can also be effective. However, your response to a child's behaviour has the power to shape the child's learning.


Words, the way we speak, the tone, volume, all has the power to shape a child's behaviour when you are using language, including your body language, to respond to a child, your response becomes a consequence of their actions. How we talk to children literally shapes their behaviour. Children will learn how to communicate from you, from the world around them. Whether that is using their hands to negotiate how to enter play, hitting, hurting other children or entering the play, smiling and picking up the blocks and joining in. As adults we can role model to children how to negotiate conflict, how to use our voices to communicate, the words we use and how we respect the communication of others, by learning appropriate ways to listen and respond.



As discussed in previous posts, your response to a child's behaviour can either strengthen the behaviour (make it more likely to continue) or teach an alternative. Consequences influence a behaviour. A 2 yr old has the capacity to focus for approximately 6 minutes on a task they are interested in (note I said interested in), a 3 year old 7-9 minutes. Imagine becoming frustrated with a child who begins to move about, vocalise they no longer want to participate or begin to display challenging behaviours, all because their brain has not had enough time to develop to adult levels of sitting still! The adult responds out of frustration their expectations were not achieved 'why does nothing work' 'they don't ever sit still' 'they don't play with that long enough'.


Changing our expectations to begin with, is a start. Ensuring our understanding of the developmental needs of our children, is the next step. Role modelling the outcomes, the socially significant skills children are developing, provides a valuable opportunity for each child to understand the world in which they are growing, learning and developing. When my daughter was in year 6 primary school, I remember her first piano solo at school so well, over a decade ago.


I'd been in court all day, started before 7am after arriving home at 230am. I made a promise to remember to bring her keyboard and turn up on time. I was so excited to reach the school hall at the same time as everyone was being seated. I was working far too many hours and had a full load of mother guilt that I was never able to attend all their events, I was determined I would do my best. I even put on a necklace made of pasta shells and wore it work!


I sat in my seat and could see her up front, her face said it all. Then her arms moved outward to question like something was missing, the frown, oh my gosh, that look. I'd forgotten the keyboard. My heart broke, our hearts broke.


I was forever trying my best to be the best parent I could be, while doing my best in my job to keep children safe. Of course I'm sure most readers can abstract the outfall from this event. Both my daughter and I remember this one moment all these years later.


Retaining information is not always easy, under pressure near impossible. Distraction can result in all sorts of outcomes. A single day of tiredness, busy activities, disruptions, can result in a child forgetting what may have been said the day before.


Of course we understand most of the time when this happens with adults. I've been dedicated to writing notes ever since to remind myself. If I think one note won't be enough I've been known to stick a note to the visor in the car and put an alarm on my phone. Despite all these reminders, living with Multiple Sclerosis brings even more extra challenges and sometimes if I'm distracted right before the moment I need to remember something, I can still forget and I'm an adult with loads of experience and training in how to retain information. So for a few minutes, let's ruminate on how children experience the huge amounts of information pouring into their rapidly developing, emotional brains each day. It's incredibly difficult for anyone to learn when experiencing stress, for children in a stressful environment, lots of noise, busy, loads happening, it will be so much harder for a developing brain to listen, understand and act appropriately. The child's brain experiences high levels of cortisol, neurological impacts of stress on a young child can be life long. What is firing together (the neurons developing), wires together (forms the child's brain). Providing calm, nurturing environments doesn't weaken a brain or make it more sensitive when there is chaos (which will happen when exposed to the wider world), it helps to develop and hard-wire a healthy human brain, giving children the best possible chance when they are older to learn and achieve with as much potential as we can provide during their early childhood experiences. Stress on a developing brain is harmful. How we speak to children and respond to their communication behaviours is essential for the life-long wellbeing. Back to my daughter's event night.


One thing that also stuck in my mind from that night was the school Principal. The room was full of students and parents, the noise was one of those hums you hear like buzzing bees. The Principal just stood in the centre of the stage, I watched her waiting. There was no sound, no microphone, no megaphone, no booming voice to show her authority over the other voices. Just waiting. As if the students were aware, parents began tapping their children, pointing to the front. The children in the band sat patiently and silently, a silence occurred. Then the Principal spoke. While sitting up the back was not as easy to hear such a soft voice, the room shifted to complete silence, you could hear the wave of a conductor baton. I asked her later how this had been managed with such a large group, she simply replied I role modelled to the children the appropriate way to listen and communicate, 'how can we expect children to use respectful communication if the adults they know show something different?'


I spent my days back then working in environments where children had experienced the cumulative impacts of loud, at times screaming voices, language the choices of adults and often would hear 'they just never listen' 'they ignore me' 'nothing I say works' 'I wish they'd shut up' 'why can't they just be good?'. Children receiving punishment for the very behaviour they were had been role modelled.


Our expectations of children play a big role in the outcomes of their behaviour. Understanding children's behaviour is a key to modifying our own language, the way we communicate through our behaviour, to support the development of socially significant behaviours for children. Be the change, literally. A child's world is full of curiosity, wonder and moments to experience.


Children are being shaped by their experience of the world every day. As adults we are variables (a feature in their environment that can vary and change) in that environment, shaping their behaviour. The environment a child experiences, is where a child learns communication, where behaviour develops. This includes the home, the child care service, their community, experiences with extended family. Everywhere the child experiences their world. When a child experiences an environment with positive social interactions, where language is role modelled as gentle, respectful, compassionate, the child is provided with opportunities to be gentle, respectful and compassionate. Statistics suggest children who are provided with opportunities to learn calm solutions to challenging situations are less likely to engage in risk taking behaviour as teens. A child provided with calm, nurturing environments where communication is empowering, builds the child's self esteem, is encouraging, can develop a calm disposition, resilience in the face of adversity.


Providing children with our best, ensuring when communicating with children we have checked ourselves in, are we in a frame of mind to respond appropriately? It's OK, where safe to do so, take a break and completely understandable, to be exhausted by challenging behaviours. As adults we can speak up, remove ourselves and choose a teachable moment, to role model to children how to communicate with each other, negotiate those difficult situations around turn-taking, sharing, co-operative play and foster pro-social development through a supportive response appropriate to each child's individual needs. So what helps when communicating when children?


* Use a calm, gentle & respectful voice

* Do away with 'no' and 'don't' and replace with what the child can do. For young children not only do they need to understand / process what they shouldn't be doing, they need to guess what is the alternative if they don't know. Show them. Redirect play. * Be mindful of reinforcing behaviour where the function is attention, your immediate response may just reinforce the behaviour.

* Get to know your child's behaviour, watch, observe, notice what triggers behaviours and plan to respond appropriately & effectively.

* Role model the behaviour and communication the child needs (is socially significant)

* Speak to child at their level (sit down or lower yourself)

* When communicating speak to the child face to face

* Talk to the child using their name

* Where culturally appropriate, make eye contact

* Keep your information short (appropriate to the child's age and stage of development)

* Don't forget positive reinforcement

* If a change is going to occur, communicate using a prompt 5 minutes prior

* Make instructions fun, young children particularly enjoy games (music and songs to packing up & getting ready)

* Whenever you see a moment where your child is behaving in a positive way, grab that opportunity to reinforce the behaviour.


Feel free to add more in the comments or discuss with your friends & colleagues, collect ideas! Don't forget, if close to raising your voice, responding in a way inappropriate to the child's needs, think of those instructions on planes which suggest before attending to your child, put your oxygen mask on first. Recognise how your day is going, how you are feeling and likely to respond. Seek support where possible. Choose to calm yourself before responding. Consequences have the power to shape behaviour. How you respond to a child's behaviour, their communication, will influence the child's learning opportunity.






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