Waiting for quiet….

Working with children who talk at the same time as you?

Every year do more children seem to come into your school who haven’t learnt to stay quiet when other people are talking? 

Staying quiet when others are speaking is a skill which children typically develop very early in life, usually before their first birthday. Children who arrive at school and still don’t understand that they need to be quiet when other children or adults are talking may need help to learn this skill and realise why it’s important.
You just can’t talk and listen at the same time!

In our experience, Children who find it hard not to interrupt fall into two categories:

Children who interrupt with irrelevant information.
These children are often keen to tell you an exciting piece of news that has no relevance to the lesson you are trying to teach e.g. “It’s my birthday tomorrow”
Children who shout out the answer.
It is great that these children are enthused by the lesson. However, their inability to wait for you to chose them is a problem for two reasons; firstly, they haven’t learnt the social skill of waiting for their turn; secondly, they disrupt the thinking of other children who would have got to the answer but needed more time.

What can you do to help them?

  • Don’t try to compete – don’t start an activity or a lesson until all of the children are quiet but explain why you are waiting. A useful phrase is “I really want to show you what we are going to do next but I can’t because some children are still talking. When everyone is quiet I’ll be able to tell you”.
  • Manage transitions – Transition times can be very noisy! Many children find it hard to stay quiet while moving around the classroom. This means they are not listening to you and the more vulnerable children may even forget what they have to do next. Try managing transitions from one place to another by using non-verbal cues.g. “When I nod at you, you can go back to your table”. This helps to establish a quiet atmosphere in a busy classroom.
  •  Be explicit about why children aren’t being chosen – “I’d love to choose you but can I choose you when you keep shouting out? I’m going to be watching you to see if you are staying quiet”. When you notice them trying hard to comply, choose them and help them to make the link  “I can choose you now! Why can I choose you?” Children we work with are always able to tell you what behaviour they were showing that meant you could choose them!
  •  Use a ‘Let’s talk later’ board. This is a really useful strategy for children who want to tell you something unconnected to the lesson and find it hard to move on. This might be children with neurodevelopmental difficulties or anxious children. They  often find it hard to focus on anything you say until you acknowledge what they are trying to tell you. Help them to move on by explicitly saying “We aren’t talking about Sports day now but I’m going to put your name on the ‘let’s talk later’ board and you can talk to me for two minutes about it at break time if you still want to”.  This acknowledgement helps children to ‘park’ the issue that is preoccupying them and helps them to move on. If this strategy is going to work long term, it is essential that you always follow this up at the agreed time. This gives them confidence that you will always give them the time to talk. 

  • Use Photographs – Impulsive children find it hard to remember the target behaviour of putting their hand up when they have something to say. Taking a photo of them doing this and using it as part of classroom displays is a really positive way to remind them what to do and raise their self esteem as they are being used as a role model to show all the children in the class what to do.



When saying ‘listen to me!’ isn’t enough…….

Why are there four rules for good listening?

We can all spot the poor listeners when working with a group of children but they often don’t present in the same way.  This is because listening isn’t just one skill. It requires lots of different behaviours that children bring together in order to focus/listen successfully.  Being explicit about the specific behaviour needed will help children to understand what they need to do, and why it helps them to listen. This is why we devised our four rules.

Looking at the person who is talking

We want children to be good listeners in every learning and social situation. This is a rule for life. Looking at the person who is talking will help children in every situation they find themselves in; in the classroom, at job interviews and when meeting new people and making friends.

Listening to all the words

The important bit of this rule is ‘all’. We all know impulsive children, who listen to your first words and think they know what to do without waiting for you to finish. Learning to listen all the way to the end of your words will help children avoid making simple mistakes and will save you time.

Staying quiet when other people are talking

Teaching children the importance of this rule has the biggest impact in any learning environment. Children cannot talk and listen at the same time! Their talking distracts both the other children and the adults working with them. There has been a huge rise in the amount of background noise that children are exposed to in every situation which means that children are not used to quiet and do not necessarily feel uncomfortable if they are talking at the same time as someone else. They have become desensitised to it and may need to be explicitly taught that staying quiet helps everyone to listen.

Sitting still

This is a controversial rule and certainly some children find it easier to sit still than others. However, young children typically have single channelled attention and need to look in order to listen. Anything which distracts their eyes will distract their ears too. Practising sitting still in a motivating and positive way will help them to experience success at it and find it easier in future. Children who can sit still reduce the distractions for others and find it easier to stay focused themselves.  However, this is hard for young children so be realistic about how long you are expecting them to sit.

In our experience, most children, especially in Primary, want to please the adults that they work with. However, when you say ‘listen to me’ they do not always understand exactly what behaviour you want to see. Once you have taught children these four rules then you all have a shared expectation of what good listening means and you can give them specific praise when you see them following a listening rule successfully.

Children we have worked with love playing listening games and make rapid progress once they understand the rules. The many fantastic teachers we have worked with have then been really skilled at motivating the children in their classes to show those good listening skills throughout the school day.

Ready to Listen?

Are you ready to listen?

Is everyone listening?

Are your ears switched on?

These are questions that we hear in every class in school, especially at the beginning of the year.  Being a good listener helps children with all the things they do in school. It helps them to understand lessons, chat to their friends and play games in the playground.  Children growing up now need to listen as much as ever but it is far harder for them to develop these skills because of so many competing demands for their attention.

What can parents do at home to help their child be one of the children who are ready to listen to their teacher?

  • Get eye contact first – children starting school typically have single channelled attention. This means that they need to look in order to listen. You can see this when you try to talk to a child watching their favourite TV programme and you can almost see the words bouncing off them! If you call their name and wait for them to look towards you before you speak you will be giving them the best chance to listen to you. Praising them when they do look towards you will help them to understand why this is helpful “you are looking at me now so I know you are ready to listen!”
  • Keep your language simple – the less you say then the more likely they are to keep listening to you. Cutting out unnecessary language, especially at the beginning of an instruction will help to keep children focused to the end of what you are saying.
  • Turn it down. Turn it off – Young children find it really hard to screen out background noise in order to listen to you. You are much better at doing this and may not even notice how much noise you are competing with. You can help your child by turning off the background noise when you are chatting.
  • Be a good role model – Your child will copy what you do so make sure that you look towards them when they are talking and give them time to finish. This lets them know that you are interested in what they have to say.
  • Manage screen time – Technology has many fantastic benefits for your child. Today’s children have opportunities and experiences that previous generations could not have even imagined. However, research tells us that screens can’t prepare a child for the finely tuned, subtle turn taking of listening and interacting in the real world. Only people can do that!

Treat technology as you would any other environment your child spends time in and put limits on it. Grown-ups need to be the ones in charge of screen time and the easiest time to establish these boundaries is when they are very young.

Using some easy strategies at home can help your child to become a good listener. It’s a skill that will help them throughout their school life, both learning in the classroom and playing with their friends.

Liz and Jacqui are the joint authors of  ‘Teaching Children to Listen’ and ‘Teaching Children to Listen in the Early Years’ published by Bloomsbury.