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Friday, May 15, 2009


John is boring on, once again, about the latest movie he has seen. He is retailing, in the greatest unnecessary detail (including quotes), the most exciting parts – all of which mean that your intention to see the movie next week is, well, redundant.

But all the sudden there is an ominous silence. It dawns on you that John has asked you a question… and while you heard what he said, you weren’t actually listening.

You frantically search in your memory… but, no, it’s not there.

You may have to admit it…but, instead, you tell a little white lie.

“Sorry, John, I didn’t hear you.”

Unfortunately John knows that is not strictly true. He walks away in a huff, knowing that the reason you didn’t “hear” is because you mentally tuned out.

Picture copyright Daniel East and Amanda Gray. From picture book, "Dave is Brave"
To listen, you have to pay attention

To be able to do what someone asks, you have to be paying attention. You have to not only hear what the person said, you also have to concentrate and focus on the relevant information (Hagemann, Hay & Levy, 2002; Moore, 1997).

You have to be able to shut out all the unimportant things happening around you… like the person mowing the lawn just outside the window. Or the pretty, colourful bird that just flew past. Or the music playing, or people talking, or the TV going in the background (Neven, Anderson & Godber, 2002).

This takes effort. It is also a skill that is more difficult under certain conditions.

When is it hard to pay attention?

There are many reasons why a child may be struggling to pay attention. For example, a child with a hearing impairment or any other language difficulty can miss any words or sounds that cue other children into the fact that you are about to give them a list of instructions.

For example, you might call a child’s name, or say to a class, “NOW (pause to wait for all eyes to turn to you)… what you have to do is…” This is a verbal cue to get your student’s attention. This will only work if the child is “tuned in” to your voice.

It is not only children with hearing impairments who might find it hard to be tuned in to your voice. Children with attention deficit disorders such as ADD or ADHD may find it difficult to focus on one thing if there are lots of other things to look at or listen to (Kewley, 2005; Neven, Anderson & Godber, 2002).

Children who are tired, hungry, anxious, or simply not interested in what you are saying will also find it hard to pay attention to what you are saying.

I will talk about strategies later in another post, but it is important to remember that triggering the child’s attention through more than one sense (touching their shoulder or standing close to them as well as calling their name) may be the answer.

And always, always, make sure you have their attention first before you start asking them to do things (Educational Psychology Service, 2008).

How can you tell if they are paying attention?

Eye contact is one of the most important things to gain before giving instructions. This will tell you that the child is focusing their attention where you want it. It will also help those who struggle with storing the words or hearing the sounds as they can get clues about what you are saying through your body language, gestures, lips and facial expressions (Queensland Health, 2008).

For children with Autism for whom eye contact may be difficult, do not demand eye contact (Austism SA, 2004). Looking in your direction or tilting their ear towards you may be their way of paying attention.

In the next post I will talk about difficulties children might have in interpreting what we are saying.

Reference list:

Autism South Australia. (2004) Information Sheet 17 Classroom Issues. Retrieved 15th May, 2009 from:

Queensland Health (2008). Communication with vision or hearing impaired clients. Retrieved 15th May, 2009 from:

Kewley, G. (2005). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: What can Teachers Do? David Fulton Publishers:London.

Neven, R.S., Anderson, V. and Godber, T. (2002). Rethinking ADHD. Allen and Unwin: Crows Nest.

Hagemann, E., Hay, D.A., and Levy, F. (2002). Cognitive Aspects and Learning. In S. Sandberg (Ed), Hyperactivity and Attention Disorders of Childhood, p214-241. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Moore, B.C.J. (1997). And Introduction to the Psychology of Hearing. Academic Press: San Diego.

Educational Psychology Service. (2008). Managing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity
Disorder (ADHD) in the Classroom. Retrieved 15th May, 2009 from:

You might also want to check out the following links:


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