Why won't he listen to me?

Written by Kate Grimes


Listening is key to learning new things. Research tells us that to use our language (speak) effectively we must first be able to listen and discriminate what words/ instructions are being given before we can use words and sentences to ask for things and express our needs.

How can you build/ develop your child’s listening skills? Firstly I want you to think about this in relation to two different groups of children:

(a) Children who have difficulty listening and understanding language and (b) children who are not following through on what they are asked to do even though they have the understanding of language to do so.

(a) Children who have difficulty listening and understanding language

  1. For children who have difficulty listening to language we need to ensure that the instructions we give are pitched at a level that they can understand. If you are unsure of what this level is or feel that your child is not following through on instructions that you would expect for his/ her age I would recommend that you have your child’s receptive language skills/ listening skills assessed by a Speech and Language Therapist or a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst. This person can set up a programme tailored to your child’s specific areas of need.
  2. When you give your child a one step instruction e.g. ‘clap your hands’ first show them (model) how you want them to follow through on the instruction. When they follow through on this give them a reward or some specific praise for doing so e.g. ‘that was great listening to me’, ‘nice clapping your hands’. The more we praise and reward the behaviour we want to see the more likely it is to happen again in the future.

You may feel that your child follows instructions better at home than in another setting (e.g. nursery, school or therapy setting). Children can pick up on contextual cues that help them follow what they’re being asked to do. For example ‘get me the plate’ when they are in the kitchen about to have their dinner or ‘get your water bottle’ when that it is positioned in front of them on a table. To be sure your child understands what you’re asking them think about whether your child follows your instruction in an unfamiliar context.

Children also build up an awareness of the routine of an activity e.g. before they leave the house they must put on their shoes. If you ask them to ‘get their shoes’ they may know what is expected from them based on the prior history/ experience of the same set of instructions/ routine being given in that situation. When you give an instruction e.g. ‘touch your nose’ without any cue does your child follow through on that instruction?

  1. If you are working on improving your child’s listening skills I would recommend picking ten instructions (not in the context of what your child normally does in that environment) and ask them to follow the instruction. For example ‘clap hands’. Ask them once ‘clap hands’, give your child a model of how to do it. Reward your child each and every time they follow through on the instruction. This reward can take the form of specific praise e.g. ‘well done for listening’ or giving your child an item e.g. blowing bubbles or time to take a turn on a game.
  2. Visuals/ pictures can also help your child understand what is expected of them. Giving them a visual/ picture support of ‘first’ and ‘then’ can help them to follow through on what you are asking them e.g. ‘first listening then play with the ball’. This can be supported with a picture of both of those activities.
  3. How many words are you using in an instruction? Compare these two instructions ‘get the book’ versus ‘go to your bag, open the front pocket, take your blue reading book and bring it over to me’. The first instruction is a lot easier to follow then the second one. Be conscious of the number of words you are giving in an instruction and make an effort to cut down the length of the instruction to increase your child’s ability to follow through on things.
  4. Use a gesture/ sign to support what you are saying e.g. ‘get the book’ while pointing to the book. The aim is to gradually reduce the number of gestures/ signs you give your child to follow an instruction and to increase their ability to follow through an instruction through listening and understanding language alone.
  5. Stay in full view of your child- remember to get down to your child’s level when giving an instruction. Establishing eye contact (even for a couple of seconds) before you give the instruction increases the likelihood that your child will follow through on what you ask them to do.
  6. If your child is busy playing with a toy how likely are they to follow through on what you’ve asked them to do? Limit distractions in the environment to increase the likelihood of your child following through on what you’ve asked them. This might mean turning off the television/ iPad or taking a toy out of your child’s hand momentarily to get their attention.
  7. Can you include the instructions you are working on in play? For example taking turns with teddy or following instructions in a game e.g. ‘Simon says’? When your child is motivated with the activity or game you are playing together it’s easier to keep them interested and for learning to happen as a result.

It can be hard to squeeze something else into an already busy day! Rather than trying to remember each of the points above I would recommend focusing on one or two areas to start with. Perhaps you can work on following instructions with your child before they go to bed or just before dinner time?

(b) Children who refuse to listen to an instruction I would recommend thinking about the following:

  1. Is your child motivated to follow through on what you ask them to do? Do you acknowledge when they have followed what they were asked to do with a reward or praise e.g. ‘nice listening’, ‘well done for helping Mum’.
  2. Does your child have a prior experience of positive things happening when they follow through on what you ask them to do? Have they been rewarded with an item or with specific praise from you when they have done what they were asked to do? For example ‘great tidying up your toys’
  3. Can you give them a choice of what they will get as a reward for following through on what you asked them to do e.g. if you finish your homework then you can pick a game to play with/ spend some time on your iPad/ spend time doing something together.
  4. Can you give your child a warning that a desired activity is about to come to an end? For example ‘playtime is finished in ten minutes, play time is finished in five minutes, play time is finished’. It’s important to follow through on what you say. This shows that you mean business and you can be relied on to follow through on what you say next time around!
  5. Is there a particular time of the day/ particular activity in which you have most difficulty getting your child to listen to you? Take a daily record of any time your child refuses to follow through on an instruction. Use the strategies outlined above around this activity first and see what success you have!

Finally if your child’s ‘refusal’ to follow through on instructions persists I would recommend getting some advice from a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst who will be able to put a programme in place to help you in dealing with this behaviour at home.

If you have any feedback we would love to hear from you.

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