Not listening or not hearing?


How teachers and Early Years practitioners can help children overcome problems with their communication skills

From an early age, if a child cannot clearly hear, or understand and interpret what is being said to them, they are likely to become frustrated and their behaviour may be misinterpreted as disruptive. If they are not able to understand verbal and non-verbal communication, they are less able to express themselves clearly, share their feelings or make their needs known. This can have a negative impact on their cognitive, social and emotional wellbeing. By raising awareness of early signs of needs, however, later difficulties may be avoided or addressed so that all children can be stretched and challenged.

What is the difference between listening and hearing?

One reason children appear to have learning difficulties is that they cannot understand fully what the teacher is saying to them and then act quickly and correctly while interpreting the meaning of what has been said. Socially, they may withdraw as they struggle to follow interactions with other children.

To become a good listener we need to be able to “zoom in” on relevant information and “zoom out” from, or filter out, irrelevant background information. Good Listeners hear all sounds clearly and can focus and concentrate. They are not distracted by other sensory information. Poor listeners, on the other hand, do not have these abilities and often their only strategy is to tune out.

Behavioural problems are often the result of misunderstandings, as a child with auditory problems has to work harder to understand what is being said. It is like learning a foreign language for us. Hearing is a passive process and listening is an active process. Good hearing is the foundation of good listening, but we can have excellent hearing and still be poor listeners. Poor listeners have poor development of understanding, don’t follow instructions and may have poor friendship skills. They can get labelled as naughty and have problems listening to group or class instructions.

Reasons why hearing may be a problem

It is estimated that fifteen per cent of children have some hearing loss, although many of these children are more likely to be considered to have an attention disorder or learning problem, or to be a poor student with behavioural issues. There are a number of possible social, environmental and biological/medical reasons why a child’s communication may seem to be delayed or why they appear to have difficulties communicating. These include:

  • repeated ear infections. These can have a long term impact and implications beyond the periods of infection. Conductive hearing, also known as glue ear, is the most common cause of poor hearing in children. It can be difficult to spot because there may not be any obvious symptoms, although it often follows an ear infection or a cold. Many children with glue ear get better on their own, usually within a few months. However, some children get glue ear for long periods and their hearing is affected for substantial periods of time, even when there are no apparent symptoms
  • problems during pregnancy and/or birth which can cause developmental delay
  • a specific medical syndrome or disorder
  • a family related condition
  • a lack of early stimulation and good quality interaction.


Auditory processing disorder

Children with auditory processing disorder (APD) may have difficulties listening to sounds or making sense of the sounds heard, particularly in environments with a lot of background noise. They usually have normal levels of hearing and intelligence. APD often becomes more apparent when children start at school.

The cause of APD is unknown. In children, APD may be associated with conditions such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, autistic spectrum disorders, specific language impairment, pervasive developmental disorder or developmental delay (source: National Deaf Children’s Society).

Symptoms of APD may include:

  • being inattentive
  • talking too loudly and listening to the TV at a high volume
  • mispronouncing words
  • being unsettled at school
  • tuning out
  • problems working independently
  • delayed reactions to sounds or instructions
  • over sensitivity to loud or sudden noises
  • poor speech and language ability
  • always speaking loudly
  • poor balance.

Effects of poor language skills

The consequences of poor language skills are many and various. They may affect:

  • the child’s ability to think and reason
  • the development of social relationships
  • the ability to solve problems
  • reading and spelling progress
  • social and behavioural development.

Long-term difficulties may include:

  • frustration, peer rejection and lack of confidence in communicating
  • an exacerbation of communication problems over time
  • an inability or lack or disposition to initiate conversation
  • playing alone
  • being less popular in class
  • shyness (in younger children)
  • low self-esteem (in older children).

Teaching strategies

There are a number of useful strategies that can be employed to help children with communication problems. For example, teachers can:

  • provide a visual back-up (on the board or as a prompt sheet)
  • pre-teach specific vocabulary
  • gain the child’s attention specifically before giving instructions to the class or group
  • check that they have understood. It is easy for teachers to be misled into thinking a child has understood, and sometimes children stop asking for help, particularly if they sense that teachers are frustrated by their “constant” requests for instructions to be repeated
  • repeat instructions, when necessary, rather than re-phrasing them. The child will be able to fill in the portions of the message that were missed first time. If information is re-phrased, however, the child has an entirely new message to decode. If this does not seem to work, consider re-phrasing in smaller chunks
  • keep instructions simple and concise. Speak clearly and at a measured pace
  • use a buddy system. Negotiate with a classmate who can help the child focus
  • avoid standing where your face goes into shadow, where it is difficult for children to pick up facial clues
  • repeat what other children say. A child with glue ear may not hear what their peers say in group work.

Whenever there is concern about hearing, it is essential that this is checked. However, it is important to remember that a child may pass a hearing test given quiet one-to-one conditions but lack the necessary abilities to perform to his/her potential in the classroom. It is crucial that all schools are fully aware of the accommodations that can be made to help children who have hearing difficulties.

Further information

Mary Mountstephen is a neuro-developmental delay specialist, the author of several books on learning differences and presents workshops internationally:

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 46: May/June 2010.

Mary Mountstephen
Author: Mary Mountstephen

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