By CELA on 21 Feb, 2022

For children to flourish they need to feel secure, not just in their environment but also in their relationships. Active listening is an excellent strategy for supporting trust and the development of strong educator/child relationships.
So how can educators best listen to children to really get to the bottom of what they are saying?
Active listening can be especially tricky for educators responsible for children with limited words, or children with English as a second language, but there are techniques that can be employed to clarify meaning for the listener.

Let’s look at an example provided by a CELA team member to demonstrate how important it is to listen closely, rather than assume we understand what a child is trying to say: 

Jeremy, a boy with limited English, was crying in the sandpit and saying ”spider, spider.”
An educator approached Jeremy and asked him a range of questions: “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Where’s the spider? Show me.”
The child took the educator’s hand and walked over to a fence, again saying: “Spider, spider.”
The educator said: “There’s no spider there. You’re okay, stop crying.” 
She then walked away, clearly frustrated, saying to everyone around her: “I don’t know what he wants, I can’t understand him.”
Another educator saw the interaction unfold and walked over to Jeremy, who was still upset. Instead of making assumptions about the cause of his upset, she said: “I can see that you are sad,” and put her arm around his shoulder.
Another child approached them and said: “I think he is sad because he lost his toy spider.” The educator then said to the distressed child: “Is that right Jeremey, did you lose your spider?” He nodded in agreement. Together the two children and the educator went over to the fence and found the toy spider on the ground near the fence.

In the first interaction the child is made to feel unintelligent for not being able to express himself verbally, and his emotions were not validated. The educator made assumptions about what was going on and was not truly listening to what the child was trying to communicate.
While Jeremy’s expressive language was limited, his English comprehension was very good, and he clearly understood what was being said about him. The first educator’s reaction was disrespectful and displayed a lack of empathy, understanding and tolerance.
In the second interaction, however, the educator employed active listening techniques to connect with Jeremy, discover the reason for his distress and find a solution. Using empathy, she recognised and validated the young boy’s emotions, and comforted him physically to ease his sadness.
She then waited until the cause for the upset became clear, and worked with Jeremy to solve the problem, letting him lead the way.
Active listening is not just a problem-solving tool, it is also an effective way to connect with children and build trust and mutual respect. Educators can also use active listening to role model empathy and consideration for others, which supports social-emotional development. 

How active listening can help build connections 

Active listening is a way of paying attention to someone who is communicating with you, showing them that you are interested in what they have to say and demonstrating that you are trying to understand them.
Active listening encourages children to open up to you when they are feeling distressed or despondent, as they will feel empathy through your words, behaviour and body language.

The difference between active and passive listening is that as a passive listener, you are hearing what someone is saying to you, but not really trying to understand their message. When someone listens actively, they are putting their focus into both hearing the information, and connecting all the elements to gain an understanding of instructions or the idea that is being conveyed. 
The next time you find yourself in a situation where you want to better connect with a child through active listening try the following:

  • Stop doing other things. Give the child your full attention.
  • Get down on their level, literally. Sitting or crouching beside them can be less confronting than standing in front of them.
  • Keep your body language open; turn toward them, keep your arms and hands soft and uncrossed, use physical comfort or support if appropriate.
  • Hold eye contact in a non-threatening way, just to show the child they have your attention.
  • Make no assumptions, just listen attentively to get the full story.
  • Don’t interrupt. Let the child communicate in their own time.
  • Make supportive statements, or even just sounds such as ‘Mm-hmm’ to show that you are engaged and encourage them to continue.
  • Offer possibilities only when children can’t find the right words but pay attention to how they respond to your options and change your approach accordingly.

It is important when actively listening to exist in the moment and experience the world as the child experiences it. Listen to them, but also look at them and try to see the world through their eyes. Focus on what they are focusing on. Engage with what they are engaging with.

As teacher and early childhood expert Pennie Brownlee notes in her article ‘Ego and the Baby’,

Full attention is focused and it neither judges nor labels. It just notices. Every little thing. That kind of attention allows you to respond to what is, rather than to react out of the ideas in your head.

While active listening is an effective strategy, reflective listening is another approach that also works well especially with young children.

Stepping further into empathy with reflective listening

Reflective listening can reassure young children that you are genuinely trying to hear and understand them and enables you to be confident that you are receiving the message clearly. Empathy, as well as a genuine desire to understand and help, are necessary components of reflective listening.

Reflective listening employs all of the techniques of active listening but goes a step further into the realm of empathy by mirroring body language and facial expressions to show a sense of understanding and fellowship. It also uses spoken reflections to clarify meaning and demonstrate a willingness to get to the root of what a child feels, wants or needs.

Using this technique, reflect and repeat what the child is saying in order to make sure you understand them correctly and are not making assumptions. If you don’t understand what is being said it’s ok to take a guess, but ask what you think is right, don’t just assume that it is. 

For example, in the story above the second educator could have said: “I can see that you are sad. You said something about a spider.” This would show Jeremy that she has both seen and heard him and is keen to work with him to resolve his upset.
This style of listening reassures a child that they are important. It validates their feelings and assures them that other people care about them and want to help. In this way, reflective listening is as much about showing children that they matter as it is about understanding what they are trying to say. 

As a bonus, acknowledging and naming emotions helps children recognise how they are feeling and gives them the tools they need to communicate those feelings in the future. Not only is this great for their social-emotional wellbeing, but it also assists in the development of language and communication skills. 

Professor Bruce Lambert PhD, a communications specialist in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University in the United States, suggests using the following phrases when employing reflective listening, to open channels of communication and build greater rapport:

  • “You are… (insert observation)” e.g. “You are frustrated.”
  • “It sounds like… (insert observation)” e.g. “It sounds like you are upset that Tim has the fire engine.”
  • “It seems like… (insert observation)” e.g. “It seems like you are missing your mum today.”
  • “What I’m hearing is… (insert observation) e.g. What I’m hearing is you really don’t like broccoli.”
  • “You seem to be saying…” (insert observation) e.g. “You seem to be saying you need to use the toilet.”

These techniques will help you actively listen to the children in your care and support more effective and empathic communication.

CELA professional development relating to this topic


About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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