Please Don’t Ask Children to Listen


“Listening” is a very special word to me. When I think about “listening,” I think about being transported by music, by the soft crash of ocean waves, by leaves rustling in the wind.

“Listening” also makes me think of caring and concern: people accepting and understanding others, parents listening to their child’s hopes and fears, a doctor listening to a beating heart.

“Listening” is meaningful, too, when we’re using our sense of hearing to make a close observation in scientific practice. Sensitive listening is an important skill in studying the environment, animal behavior, acoustics, pitch, and all the fascinating sounds in our world.

Listening connects us to beauty, to empathy, to discovery.

So it’s always felt wrong to me when this special word is used to mean something very different.

Too often, when we teachers say “Listen,” what we mean is: obey.

I need everyone to listen!
Let’s be good listeners!
Show me your listening ears!

Now, it’s perfectly valid and necessary to ask students to follow directions at times. But we can say “Please follow these directions.” “This is what you need to do.” “Here’s what we’ll do when we go out to the hall.” We don’t need to say “listen.”

Because here’s the thing: The word “listen,” used too often in the “obey” sense, loses its true meaning. Children tune it out. It’s background noise.

Using the word “listen” to mean “do what I say” is also a veiled way to establish power and control. And children know that “listen” in that context has a subtext of “Listen to me because I’m the teacher and you’re the student.” We teachers need to earn real authority and respect by helping children learn and succeed – and by respecting their needs, their ideas, their learning processes. If we need to ask (or tell) children to listen to us, we haven’t yet earned that respect.

For myself, when I hear myself asking children to listen, it’s a signal that something isn’t working. Usually it’s that my lesson is not engaging, that it’s too simple or too far over their heads. Sometimes it means something as basic as rearranging the classroom layout to make communication easier. It could mean that I’m just having a bad day and I’m getting too tense – I need to lighten up and give more control of the lesson and our procedures to the students – I don’t need a tight hold on the reins at all times!

Basically, if I find that  I’m saying “Listen!” too often… it means I’m the one who needs to listen more.





One thought on “Please Don’t Ask Children to Listen

  1. “Listen to me” or Give me your ears” is used in practically all classrooms of today to get student attention. I agree that if the word “listen” is overly used, the children will eventually tune out the adult who is asking them to listen to them. Children learn through active involvement, discovery, exploration, discussion, and play, and this is a time in which teachers should try to listen more attentively to learn to how children learn best. Children are naturally curious about the world around them, and learning through the senses is how they are able to engage effectively and positively in meaningful, stimulating, child-centered learning activities.

    Teachers who observe and listen carefully better understand how their students learn to problem solve, how they develop socio-emotional, intellectual, and linguistic abilities. On the other hand, there is a need for children to actively listen during such activities as teacher directed story telling, students sharing individual journals with the class, and when a specific UTUBE instructional video or a special speaker comes to visit the class. This is important, because these experiences will help them to better understand content, and it also demonstrates socially acceptable behaviors they will need in life.

    In my view, both active listening on the part of the students and teachers is important, but it is essential for students to learn to listen well in order to achieve mastery of skills and content.

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