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Listening and attention at school

Listening and attention are skills that have to be developed, much like walking and talking. Despite that, many young people struggle to pay attention within a busy classroom environment. Some young people may have particular difficulty with listening and attention whilst other areas of their development are age appropriate.

If a young person has poor listening and attention skills, they might:

  • Not be visibly listening to the teacher. For example, looking out of the window or turning around in their seat
  • Be easily distracted by their environment. For example, paying more attention to movement or noise in or near the classroom
  • ‘Zone out’ or look ‘blank’, indicating they’re not engaged or listening to the information. They may ‘switch off’ completely if listening and concentrating for a long period of time is too hard
  • Appear disruptive as they struggle to focus their attention on the task
  • Appear restless or fidgety and may become demotivated
  • Have inconsistent listening so they tune in and out and only hear parts of what is being said. They may have difficulties remembering all the parts of longer instructions
  • Not know what the task is or be able to follow the instructions. They might be slow in starting and wait to get clues from their peers

What parents/carers and teachers can do to help

Look at the environment
  • Remove any distractions, for example, close blinds, reduce background noise, sit the young person away from windows/doors
  • Seat the young person at the front of the class and away from any vibrant or distracting information on the walls
  • Think about any distractions that the young person might experience, for example, noise from a projector fan, or a window’s reflection on the whiteboard.
Use the structure of the lesson
  • Make sure lesson objectives are clear; help cue them into the topic of the lesson
  • Use written instructions to supplement spoken information e.g. bullet points on a post it or small white board
  • Break tasks down into smaller sub-tasks
  • Give key instructions which are short and simple, pausing between each one
  • Give directions in a logical time ordered sequence. Use words that make the sequence clear, such as “first, next and finally”
  • Provide an example of a completed activity, if possible, so the young person can see the desired end product
  • If they have to listen for a long period of time, give them clues on what to listen out for beforehand; this might be key words or specific details, or provide them with the questions you’re going to ask before they have to start listening
  • Allow them to note down key words or ideas while they’re listening (or if listening to a clip, pause it at suitable points to allow them to note things down)
  • Allow listening breaks; try to ensure that they aren’t having to listen for more than 10 minutes without having to think, talk or write about what they have heard; this will support the development of active listening
  • Use multi-sensory teaching methods to vary the activities
  • Use visual support to reinforce spoken information and support listening and attention skills with objects, pictures, diagrams and demonstrations
  • Use lesson plenaries to recap and reinforce key information that’s been covered.
Use individual strategies
  • Use their name to focus their attention before giving an instruction or key information
  • Use a level of language they can understand (see section on understanding language)
  • Don’t expect them to listen and write at the same time
  • Ask them to explain what they’ve been asked to do, rather than asking if they understand (as they will usually say ‘yes’ without having heard all of the instructions)
  • Provide specific feedback if they demonstrate good listening skills, for example, ‘I can tell that you’re listening because you’re looking at me’; this develops awareness of what good listening skills look like
  • Consider providing written or visual reminders of what’s involved in good listening; this could be stuck in their planner or on a pencil case or ruler – it doesn’t need to be on the wall for all to see
  • Explore the use of fiddle toys or let the young person doodle to help support and maintain attention.

How young people can help themselves

  • Think about what helps you listen to the teacher. Let your teacher know if it helps to sit at the front of the class or away from a particular person
  • Ask your teacher to give you something to fiddle with or if you can doodle on some paper, if this helps you listen
  • Make sure you know what the learning objective of the lesson is or what it is you have been asked to do. If you’re not sure, ask
  • Make sure you understand the key words. If you’re not sure, ask
  • Try stretching your legs out under your desk, or changing how you are sitting if you’re struggling to keep focused
  • Try chair or table push ups or an aerobic movement break
  • If you find you’re becoming sleepy, stick your elbows out and push the palms of your hands together really hard for about 10 seconds. This trick should help you feel more awake
  • If possible try a crunchy or chewy snack or bottle of water to sip at
  • A change of environment could help if possible

If you’ve tried the steps outlined above and have seen no improvement after four months, please do speak to your GP or health visitor.

Our team run online workshops on early language development. They are designed for parents and carers and those working within early years settings. We have three training sessions available on different topics to equip you with everyday strategies to support your child, aged up to five. Find out more information and how to register here.