Improve your active listening skills

An essential part of Sustained Shared Thinking is active listening.

This important technique can be the difference between a brief conversation and an extremely valuable episode of Sustained Shared Thinking.

Active listening with children is more than just hearing their words. It is a skill that needs to be practiced.

The majority of the time we have a quiet, internal monologue – those thoughts about what time it is, who will be doing snack, what was that noise, what shall I have for tea…. and so on.

To really actively listen to your children, you must stop ‘self listening’ to this monologue, and totally concentrate on the here and now – to be ‘in the moment’ with your child.

Sometimes this can be very difficult, especially in a busy setting with lots of children asking for your attention. However, it is worth practicing, because children are very quick to pick up on adults who aren’t listening fully.

There are a number of things that you can do to improve your active listening skills:

  • Make good eye contact with your child, getting down to their level. This shows you are fully ready to be with them and give full attention
  • Have positive body language – open and encouraging, turned fully towards your child
  • Have minimal verbal interruptions, perhaps using ‘fillers’ such as “uh, huh” or “go on” to encourage him or her. If you are constantly jumping in with a comment, it shows you are thinking about the comments and not fully listening
  • Try not to be thinking of an answer, way of making this ‘educational’ or how this meets a learning goal during the conversation – this can be very hard to do and may need lots of practice!
  • Wait a fraction longer than normal to take your turn, your child may just be pausing for thought and you could accidentally interrupt this
  • Try very hard not to find an ‘answer’ or solve the problem. Sometimes your child may just be working through a problem ‘out loud’ to clarify their own solution
  • Paraphrasing back to your child and clarifying (without adding your own interpretation) is a very powerful way of encouraging more thinking and talking from your child.

In brief, active listening is non-judgemental, respectful and attentive.

If the active listening is part of a conflict resolution, some good techniques include:

  • Labelling emotions, especially with younger children who may not know how to express their emotions yet. For example, “You sound sad…” or “You sound angry….” This gives your child a chance to think about how they are feeling, and an opportunity to respond to correct you or agree with you
  • Reflecting back the phrase used by your child, but re-worded as a question (“That’s my toy” becomes “That’s your toy?”) allows your child to expand on the idea, without forcing you to make any judgements. This can buy you thinking time, and also allows your child to reflect on what they have said as well.
  • If things are getting heated, you can respond to your child with how you are feeling – “I’m feeling sad…” or “I’m feeling confused…” This doesn’t challenge your child’s own emotions, but lets them know how their actions are affecting others.
  • Finally, and arguably the most potent technique, is to use silence. It gives everyone a chance to think about the situation and stops something being said that can’t be un-said.

There is lots more information on how active listening supports Sustained Shared Thinking in my book ‘Sustained Shared Thinking in the Early Years’

And, just for fun, watch Raymond using some of these techniques…


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