Communicating So Your Child Will Listen Better and Pay Attention

by Sandra Rief

Adapted from my books:

The ADD/ADHD Checklist, 2nd edition (2008), How to Reach & Teach Children with ADD/ADHD,2nd edition (2005), The ADHD Book of Lists (2003), Ready…Start…School (2001).

No one enjoys being interrupted when absorbed in an activity of choice. It is especially hard for a young child to stop playing in order to do something they may not wish to do (e.g, “Come to the table” or “Put your toys away”). Often it is difficult to get your child to listen when you speak, and do what you ask. The following tips and strategies will help your child listen and pay attention:

  • Get your child’s attention directly before giving directions. This means face-to-face and direct eye contact. Don’t expect your child to pay attention when you give directions from across the house.
  • You may need to walk over and touch your child (gently) to get his or her attention and eye contact before giving a direction.
  • If your child is very focused on a TV show, you may need to turn off the TV before trying to give your child an instruction or direction.
  • Keep directions clear, brief, and to the point.
  • Adults tend to talk too much when giving directions to children. State what you want your child to do with as few words as possible (“Please, put your shoes on now.”)
  • Give your directions whenever possible by saying what you want your child to do, not what you don’t want your child to do. It is better to say, “Sit on the couch” rather than “Don’t jump on the couch” and “We walk in the house” rather than “Don’t run in the house.”
  • Once you have your child’s attention and state your direction, stop talking. Again, adults have the tendency to keep on talking and not allow the child a chance to comply.
  • Another strategy is to give a direction and have your child repeat or rephrase what he or she is supposed to do. (This checks for your child’s understanding of the direction.) Then wait and watch to see that your child starts to do what you ask.
  • Give directions that are statements, not questions. Say, “Lights off in ten minutes.” Don’t say, “Are you ready to turn off the lights?”
  • Young children can’t remember more than two or three things at a time. Many children can only follow a one-step direction. So break into small steps what you want your child to do.
  • Make routines and schedules visual for your child. A helpful technique is to draw pictures (or cut pictures out and mount) on a chart that will be posted in a visible and convenient place for your child to see and reach. The picture chart shows the sequence of the morning routine/activities (or evening routine/activities).

For example, the top section of the chart can show a picture of clothing (indicating to get dressed). The second section may have a picture of a cereal bowl or various breakfast foods (to show eating breakfast). The third section can show a picture of a hairbrush and toothbrush (to indicate grooming). As your child completes each task, he or she moves a clothespin down the chart to attach next to the corresponding picture.

  • Give frequent praise and positive feedback when your child follows directions and/or is making a good attempt to do so. Thank your child for being cooperative.
  • Make sure you have provided enough structure and assistance to enable your child to follow through with the direction given, and remember: one step at a time.
  • Young children respond well to making a game out of any chore or task you want them to do. For example, set challenges: “Let’s see if we can put the blocks back in the basket by the time we count to ten (or by the time this song ends).”

If we want children to develop good listening skills, we need to practice and model what it looks like and sounds like to be a good listener. Being able to listen (to the teacher, classmates, etc.) is a critical part of school learning and a fundamental readiness skill. You can model good listening behaviors for your child by doing the following:

  • Be patient when your child struggles to express himself or herself. Give your child the chance to put his or her thoughts into words. Try not to finish children’s sentences for them in an attempt to speed them along in what they have to say.
  • Good listening means showing interest by making and maintaining eye contact, responding to what someone is saying, and being an “active listener” (e.g., asking questions for more information, paraphrasing what the speaker said, or making comments related to what the speaker said).


©2012, Sandra Rief