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Difficulties with attention and listening can affect all areas of learning; if a child is not able to listen and attend, they will be unable to process information they are given. Some children find it hard to listen and concentrate at the level expected for their age. Children can find it challenging to focus their attention when 1:1 with an adult, in a small group or in whole class situations.

This section includes resources and advice to support the development of attention and listening skills.

Why is attention important?

Children have to learn to focus their attention on to different things. This usually starts with attending to people, then to objects, then being able to share their attention between people and objects.

Children need to develop their attention skills before they learn to understand words and learn to talk.

Children need to be able to attend and concentrate so that they can learn new skills, including how to communicate.

Why is listening important?

Children may hear what you say but not listen to what you say. Listening to language involves hearing the words, attending to them and thinking about them.

Children need to be able to listen to and recognise the sounds that make up words and sentences so that they can learn to understand and use words and sentences themselves.

The different sounds we use in our speech can sound very similar to one another when children are learning language.

Children often need to practise listening to a range of different sounds to develop this skill.

Children with attention and listening difficulties may have some of the following characteristics:

  • Appear to ignore you
  • Cannot sit still      
  • Talk when should be listening
  • Cannot tell you what you have been talking about
  • Do not appear to know what to do and can have difficulty following instructions
  • Can only concentrate on one thing
  • Are easily distracted
  • Do not settle with one activity, but tend to flit from task to task. 

The six stages of attention and listening development are:

STAGE ONE

Very distractible, attention is focused on whatever is their current interest and will be quickly shifted to any new stimulus.

At this stage we need to use the child’s interest to get their attention

STAGE TWO

Can concentrate on a task of their own choosing. Children do not have the ability to focus on more than one task. It is difficult for an adult to direct the child.

At this stage we will need to use prompts – their name, or a physical prompt such as touching their hand – to get their attention.  We need to become the most interesting thing!!

STAGE THREE

Attention is still single channelled but the child is now able to shift their attention away from the current task and then go back to the original activity with adult support.

At this stage we will still need to get their attention before asking a question or giving an instruction

STAGE FOUR

Start to be able to control their own focus of attention. Children are now able to shift their attention to and from tasks more easily and require less adult support

At this stage children will still need prompts to know when it’s time to listen – these prompts might need to be visual as well as verbal

STAGE FIVE

The child is usually entering school at this stage. They can now perform an activity whilst listening to the teacher giving instructions. This is called dual channelled attention. Concentration span can still be quite short, however, children can cope with group situations. 

We will still need to be aware of encouraging active listening.                                 

STAGE SIX

Attention skills are now flexible and sustained for lengthy periods. The child can integrate visual and auditory information with ease.

Adapted from: Cooper, J., Moodley, M. and Reynell, J. (1978) Helping Language Development: A Developmental Programme for Children with Early Learning Handicaps. London: Edward Arnold

  • Reduce distractions. This might include removing other toys.
  • Get down to your child’s level if you can.
  • Get your child’s attention before giving an instruction or asking a question.
  • Use simple sentences. Break down instructions into smaller parts.
  • Turn the TV or background music off.
  • Talk about your own listening – “ooh, listen to the clock!”, “I hear the birds singing!”
  • Use lots of praise such as “good listening!”
  • Watch your child to see what interests them and follow their lead. Join in with what they are doing.
  • If using a toy, play with one toy at a time in many different ways to keep your child’s interest. Don’t be concerned about using the toy in a different way from usual. Using the toy in an unusual way might just be the thing to get your child’s attention.
  • Keep activities short and stop when your child loses interest.
  • Keep your play exciting by using your tone of voice and facial expression.
  • Using pauses during play can build in an element of anticipation. For example, pausing before ‘go’ in ‘ready, steady, go’ games, and waiting for your child to indicate that they want the next step to happen.
  • Try to get the child to the end of an activity even if it only lasts a few seconds. For games with a definite end point encourage the child to complete the final step, even if you do the rest of it, for example, you do most of a jigsaw and let them put the last piece in.

‘Ready, Steady, Go! games

Encourage your child to wait until you’ve said “go” before each turn. Increase the length of time (s)he has to wait for the word “go” – pausing builds the excitement!

  • rolling a ball
  • stacking bricks and saying “go” to knock them down
  • holding an inflated balloon and saying “go” to let it escape
  • use a car track and wait for “go” before sending the car down.
  • Use shakers or drums. Your child waits for you to say “go” before they can play the instrument. It’s fun to do this together with a matching instrument.

Turn-taking games

Play simple games together and aim to add on one extra turn each time

  • add a brick to a tower.
  • put a piece in a jigsaw.
  • post pictures in a post-box.
  • roll a ball to each other.

Simple instruction games

  • Toy shops – ask your child for one or two things to get from the shop
  • Toy post box – ask for one thing for your child to find and post
  • Inset jigsaw puzzles (each piece is a shape) – ask your child for one piece at a time
  • Talk together in play and include some simple instructions, like “can you put dolly in bed?”

Listening games

  • Hide things that make a noise (e.g. a wind-up toy, musical box). See if your child can find the toy by listening to the sound.
  • Hide behind a chair and make a sound such as a giggle. See if your child can find you.
  • Fill yoghurt pots with different things, e.g. rice, bells, shake them and listen to the different sounds. If you have two the same, play a game at finding the ones that have the same sound.
  • Use a wooden spoon to bang different surfaces, for example, the bottom of a plastic mixing bowl, bottom of a pan, the floor, a metal table leg. Listen to the different sounds. Bang along to the rhythm of the song.
  • Play “Simon says….” Encourage your child to listen to the instruction before carrying out the action, for example, clap your hands, touch your nose, stamp your feet.
  • Play musical statues - your child listens for when the music stops and then stops dancing.

Action songs and rhymes

  • Sing songs together such as “Wind the Bobbin Up” or “The Wheels on the Bus” and encourage the child to join in and copy the actions.
  • Leave pauses in the song so that child has a chance to fill in the gaps.

Stories

  • Looking at books together can be fantastic. Read them often to make them familiar, and then encourage listening and joining in with the favourite bits. If they are not ready to listen to a story, choose books with simple rhymes or big pictures to talk about. 

Remember to keep all activities fun and to only spend a short amount of time on any specific activity (5-10 minutes maximum).

  • Listening Walk: The purpose of the walk is to listen to sounds, particularly those they may not have been aware of previously. Before the walk you can suggest sounds to listen for or you can call the child's attention to sounds as you walk along. After the walk, see how many sounds your child can remember and encourage him/her to describe them.
  • Practise listening to environmental sounds and guessing where the sounds are coming from and what is making them.
  • With their eyes closed ask your child to identify different noises e.g. clock ticking, coins rattling, squeaky toys, paper rustling, kettle boiling etc.
  • Have your child close their eyes and then move to different positions in the room. Call out to your child and see if they can guess from which direction your voice is coming from.
  • Play listening games such as "Simon Says". Simon Says can also be played with your child imitating your speech sounds, volume changes, changes in pitch and rhythm changes.
  • Play games such as "Eye Spy" or see how many things they can see in the room that begin with a certain letter. Play matching games where the children have to match pictures of objects that have either the first or last sound the same.
  • Encourage your child to focus his attention on particular sounds. For example, read a simple story with background noise created by a radio playing softly. Before beginning the story tell the child to listen for specific pieces of information in the story (e.g. the main characters name). Gradually increase the difficulty of the information the child is asked to listen for.
  • Play games that encourage listening for differences between words. For example, ask your child to listen to a group of four words and tell you which ones rhyme or which ones begin or end with a different letter. For younger children, ask them to tell you if two words are the same or different, you can use word pairs such as by/pie, mat/pat, fish/wish. Older children can listen to short lists of consonant sounds that contain one or more repetition e.g. b, d, k, f, d. They tell you the sound that is repeated.
  • Clap in simple rhythmic sequence and then ask your child to imitate the sequence.
  • Give your child a series of directions (e.g. two hops and one step) and ask them to follow your directions. You can gradually increase the length of the sequence as your child masters each stage.
  • Read an unfamiliar story to your child. Afterwards ask questions about the sequence of events (e.g. what happened first, who went out to play etc). Continue to ask questions until the events in the story have been reviewed. Another strategy is to ask the child to predict likely events in the story.
  • Present well-known stories, rhymes or songs with one or more parts omitted and the child must supply the missing information.

Auditory memory is the ability to remember things that we have heard.

A child’s ability to retain and process information they have heard can have a big impact on how successful any interaction is – even if they understand an instruction, if they can’t remember it, they can’t do what has been asked.  If they can’t remember what has been said, it can be difficult to have a conversation, or to learn something new.  This can affect every aspect of life, both at school and at home.

Auditory memory can be improved with practice, but it can be difficult to improve quickly – understanding it and knowing strategies to help increase your child’s success can be really valuable if your child finds this difficult.

Testing your child’s level of auditory memory at home

You don’t need any equipment to test auditory memory - SLTs often use pictures, but you can also use a collection of household objects, a collection of Lego bricks of different colours, whatever comes to hand!

Always check that your child knows the name of each item you are using!! If they can’t tell you, ask them for each one, one by one, and check they can find it. If they can…

1 - How many can they remember?

Use a selection of about six different items to choose from.
One word – can you find the car? Can you find red?
Two words – can you find the car and the spoon? Can you find red and blue?
And so on – keep increasing until it gets too hard.
Try and give the whole instruction before they start, rather than breaking it down into steps, and repeat with lots of different instructions – if they get a level right nearly every time, this is the level they are comfortable with.
In real life, we don’t always act on what we have heard straight away…so….

2 - Can they remember the same number of items after a pause? Say “This time, wait until I say go….”

One word – can you find the car………. Go!
Two words – can you find red and green …………Go!
And then, even harder…. but this happens a lot in real life…!!

3 - Can they remember the same number of items if you distract them briefly in between asking and finding? e.g. by asking how old they are, asking them to pick something up from the floor, or clap their hands …. Go!”

You can also test this without objects, using simple action instructions, such as:

Clap your hands

Stamp your feet

Sit down

Touch your nose

Turn around

Do a wiggle

Wave your hands

Touch the floor

Point to the door

Add one extra each time and see how many they can do!

Once you know the level your child is comfortably able to remember, this is the right level for instructions that are more likely to be successful. If they can only remember two items, for example, then it is important that instructions are given using two key words – for more information about key words, please see the CSLT Toolkit section on Understanding.

It is important to notice when you have given an instruction if there are pauses or distractions – this might explain why they found it hard to follow.  Also, more complicated words can make things harder to understand.

Practice these skills using the same ideas as the testing with daily activities, such as collecting ingredients for baking, tidying toy characters, writing items on a shopping list if they can manage this… the possibilities are endless!

  • Get your child’s attention before giving instructions
  • Give more time to process after an instruction without adding any distractions
  • Use specific praise such as “good listening!” – this helps your child know what is expected
  • Reduce external distractions when giving instructions – background noise, having the TV on etc, can really affect processing.
  • Break down instructions into smaller steps
  • Repeat instructions as many times as needed – can you use any easier words?
  • Use visual support.  Using pictures, or demonstrations of what is expected, can really help. 

Contact Us

For more information or if you have any questions please contact andrea.arnold@nhs.net

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