In the first few years of life, an astonishing 1 million new neural pathways are formed each second. The systems required for carrying out tasks related to listening are only just being set up in early childhood. This is a critical time of development for the areas of the brain related to movement and balance, emotional regulation, and responding to incoming signals.
In terms of emotional development, ECEC settings may be a child’s first experience of being cared for by someone other than their primary caregivers, and therefore developing secure attachments with educators is a crucial foundation for listening.
Factors that can influence listening
According to Piaget’s theory1, children aged between 2-7 years are in the pre operational stage of cognitive development. Key features of this stage are centration (the tendency to focus on only one aspect of a situation at one time) and egocentrism.
This means that children tend to focus on one aspect of a situation at a time and tend to see things from their own point of view.
Young children are developmentally the centre of their own universe,” explains Bermagui Preschool Director Narelle Myers. "When absorbed in playtime, they may not be able to perceive anything outside of their little world. Viewing behaviour through a developmental lens helps us understand the context of these actions. Children of this age have a need for self-identity and a sense of self, and in exploring these concepts, may see how far they can push boundaries.
Physical health issues such as ear infections or hearing loss, or developmental challenges can have an impact on listening, and medical input is recommended for this.
Cultural awareness can help us understand various cultural norms regarding eye contact and responding to adults, so that behaviour isn’t interpreted as avoidant when it is not intended this way.
Local and global events can also have an impact on listening. Narelle tells us she has observed changes in behaviours that appear linked to the unsettling events of the bushfires and the COVID pandemic.
Practical strategies to help the children in your care (and look after your own well-being)
Educators can sometimes feel frustrated, exhausted or burnt out when they feel they are unable to communicate effectively, or are not being listened to.
“It’s really important not to push down those feelings,” Narelle explains. “Caring for a strong-willed child can be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.”
Narelle offers the following suggestions:
Focus on connection
- Interactions with children grounded in attachment theory help us remain empathic and respectful.
- Being part of a collaborative team is crucial, with supports written into policies and procedures.
- Work in partnership with families to ensure you’re on the same page.
Be realistic with expectations
- Children of this age are still learning how to be good listeners.
- “There won’t ever be a one-size-fits-all solution,” Narelle says. "Provide sensory cushions if needed, allow extra processing time, or allow a child to do another activity while listening if this is what works for them."
- Know that even when it feels like slow progress is being made that you are making a difference. “Just being in a positive environment in a preschool setting can be life-changing,” says Narelle.
"Hand over the knowledge and strategies you've uncovered when a child transitions to school. If you’ve found the key to tapping into a child’s listening skills, passing this information on will ensure a smoother transition.
Work from a point of curiosity
- You may find the challenge of uncovering solutions inspiring, and some educators enjoy diving into the psychology of it.
“Children are likely to be good listeners if you are listening to them,” says Narelle, who highlights the importance of role modelling listening. “Providing children with ways of practising listening skills through experience is also important. This may include small group social play, dramatic play, and small group lunch tables.
“It’s also important to communicate effectively. Get down to the child’s level, use good eye contact and a slightly lower tone of voice than usual to provide a simple instruction of a few words. Try one instruction at a time, and frame it as a statement rather than a question."
One of the joys of working with toddlers and preschoolers are the constant lightbulb moments of learning and discovery.
“It is a really good thing to continue to celebrate and delight in those moments,” says Narelle. “The most transformative thing I’ve learnt over the years is that listening can happen in so many ways in different shapes and forms."
1 Kendara Cherry via Very Well Mind (updated May 2022). The 4 Stages of Cognitive Development explained.
Lady Gowrie Child Centre (2011). Understanding Attachment Theory, Emotional Availability and Application in Early Childhood Settings.
Dr Saul McLeod (2018) via Simply Psychology. The Preoperational Stage of Cognitive Development.
Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University (accessed August 2022). Brain Architecture.