Learning how to listen

Learning how to listen
Harmonious learning and development: Your child’s attention skills are essential. Some tips to help.

Maintaining attention is an important skill to develop, as it is the basis for many learning opportunities and establishing good relationships with others. An attention span allows a child to focus on a person, object, or activity for a certain period of time. How can you foster the development of your child’s attention span?

The importance of learning how to maintain attention

Before they even know how to speak, the child’s attention skills are in full development. In fact, as soon as they start paying attention to the adults around them, the baby is listening to the sounds and words they say. This is how the child gradually learns to decode the words, structure, and grammar of their language.

Several other concepts are related to the child’s attention skills, such as learning to count, read, and solve problems. Attention skills help them understand what they need to do for an activity (e.g. instructions or steps to follow) and the purpose of that activity (e.g. stacking blocks to build a tower). To complete a specific task, the toddler must be able to maintain their attention.

Similarly, the ability to pay attention allows the child to prioritize the importance of certain elements in their environment, such as a statement made by mom or a comment made by a friend.

Social skills development

The ability to maintain attention is also involved in developing the child’s interpersonal relationships and social skills. Getting along with others, preventing disputes, and settling conflicts require being able to speak and also listen to what they are told, without interrupting.

By waiting for their turn to speak, the child has access to all the information necessary to understand what is being said to them. The child’s inhibition, which is strongly related to their ability to pay attention, is therefore called upon. Indeed, the ability to inhibit themselves allows the child to control their emotions, thoughts, and actions with regard to the situations that happen in their environment. As with attention-related skills, inhibition strongly develops between the ages of 3 to 7, along with changes associated with brain maturation.

Joint attention ability
Joint attention ability (or taking turns speaking) develops even before the child’s true language. For example, from the age of 3 months, babies tend to stay silent when an adult speaks to them. Moreover, studies suggest that there are connections between attention span and language development in children; language difficulties may be associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for example.

How to stimulate your child’s creativity

Before certain brain structures mature, your child’s attention span may be less sustained and shorter. Their lack of attention is not on purpose. You can still support your child in developing their attention skills.

Here’s what you can do to capture their attention when talking to them.

The younger your child, the shorter their attention span. This is why they may tend to explore a new environment or object impulsively.
  • Stand in front of your child when talking to them so they can look you in the eyes.
  • Limit sources of visual and auditory distraction around your toddler. For example, turn off the TV, turn down the radio, take your child to a quiet corner of the park, and avoid bright lighting that could cause distraction.
  • Encourage your toddler to avoid talking at the same time as you and to wait for their turn to talk.
  • Ask your child to repeat what they just heard.
  • Repeat what you just said using other words to make sure your child understands what you are saying to them.
  • Make sure your toddler is not stressed or excited by objects, people, or elements of the environment, as this could prevent them from hearing everything (e.g. a dog in the park that might make them scared).
  • Make sure that the activity offered to your child is appropriate for their age (storytelling time, games, crafts, etc.). A child’s ability to pay attention varies according to age, and it may be difficult for them to concentrate and remain quiet for a long time.
  • Organize activities that meet your toddler’s needs and preferences, because their level of attention depends on it. If an activity is not interesting to them, they are unlikely to devote much attention to it.
  • Only give a few instructions at a time, especially when your child is young. Your instructions should be short and clear, in addition to being adapted to their age, so your toddler can understand and focus their attention on them.
  • Check that a health issue, fatigue, or other discomfort is not the cause of their poor listening skills. Your child may have difficulty focusing on your words if they need to go to the toilet or have an ear infection, for example.
  • Show your child that you value their efforts by saying: “Well done, I know it’s not easy to stay focused for such a long time!” Your encouragement can motivate them to try to be more and more attentive.
  • Get active with your child. Being active increases blood flow to the brain, contributing to the development of cognitive processes, such as maintaining attention.
  • If your child has difficulty listening, you can ask them to take a listening position when they need to listen carefully (e.g. sitting on the floor with legs crossed and hands on their knees or sitting on a chair with their hands on the table, without moving). You can also use photos or drawings to help them remember what to do (e.g. eyes to remind them to look at the person speaking, a character with a finger on its mouth to tell them not to speak at the same time as the other person).

Activities to improve attention skills as a family

  • Try to recognize ambient sounds and find out where they are coming from.
  • Sing a song your child knows and change a word. If your child doesn’t notice that you didn’t get the song’s lyrics right, tell them that you’re going to sing it again and ask them to tell you if you make a mistake.
  • Play “When I go to the market, I put in my little basket...” Repeat the sentence and name an item to put in the basket. In turn, the players repeat the sentence, list the items already put in the cart, and add an item of their choice.
  • Play guessing the objects around you, for example: “I’m grey and I have four legs” (to describe the sofa in the living room). This kind of game encourages your child to pay attention to details in the environment and to focus on specific elements.
  • Play boardgames with your child, as they often require attention skills (e.g. memorizing the location of a map or object, focusing on visual clues, observing other players’ strategies to direct their own actions, etc.).
  • Read to your child, and ask them questions throughout the story to see if they are paying attention and understand it well. Asking questions during a story makes them more active and helps them be more attentive.


Help with school
As soon as kindergarten starts, your child will discover a new environment (school) with many stimuli, which will require effort in focusing their attention. In class, the teacher and other children will not always speak directly to them, but rather the whole group. If they have good attention skills, your child will be able to recognize the important messages among all the sounds they hear, and the times when they have to adapt to the demands of the environment (e.g. recess, hand washing routine, etc.).

Things to keep in mind

  • Attention skills are essential to a child’s learning and development.
  • The younger a child is, the shorter their attention span.
  • A toddler can maintain their attention more easily when the activities or conversations interest them and are appropriate for their age.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Stéphanie Duval, professor of educational sciences, Université Laval
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: October 2019.


Photo: iStock.com/skynesher


Useful links and resources

Note: Hyperlinks to other sites are not updated on a continuous basis. Thus, some links may not work. In such case, use the search tools to find specific information.

  • BOUCHARD, Caroline et al. Le développement global de l’enfant de 0 à 6 ans en contextes éducatifs. 2nd ed., Quebec, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2019, 516 pp.
  • CHARLESWORTH, Rosalind. Understanding Child Development. 10th ed., Boston, Cengage Learning, 2017, 560 pp.
  • DUVAL, Stéphanie and Caroline BOUCHARD. Agir et interagir pour comprendre le monde. In C. Bouchard (2019), Le développement global des enfants âgés entre 0 et 6 ans en contextes éducatifs. Sainte-Foy, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2019, pp. 229-276.
  • BARON DE HIRSCH INSTITUTE. L’attention. 2004. www.canada.ca
  • REYNOLDS, Greg D. and John E. RICHARDS. “Cortical Source Localization of Infant Cognition,” Developmental Neuropsychology, Vol. 34 (3), May 2009, pp. 312-329. http://www.tandfonline.com