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Attention and listening

How children develop these skills

A child develops their attention and listening skills by hearing everyday sounds around them, for example, the telephone, washing machine, and animal noises.

Before they can learn to speak and communicate with others, children must focus their listening on spoken language including single words and sentences.

Babies and young children develop attention and listening skills through  regular interaction and play with others in quiet environments.

As children progress through education, it becomes increasingly important to focus their own attention for sustained periods of time. To learn at school, children must listen and pay attention to what happens around them in to understand it, despite varying levels of distraction.

Strategies and tips to help build attention and listening skills

Reduce distractions

Turn off the TV, put your phone down and reduce the amount of background noise when talking to the child so they can focus their listening.

Use your child’s name

Look at them while speaking. These clues will help them to focus their attention ready to listen.

Pay them full attention

Play for short periods often with activities that interest your child which will encourage them to focus their attention for slightly longer each time.

Slow down your talking speed

Pause between pieces of information. Allow the child time to process instructions or questions before expecting a response.

Use short simple sentences

Use familiar vocabulary and avoid ambiguous language. Break long instructions into short steps.

Praise your child

At school, your child learn good listening strategies, which break listening down into core skills: eyes looking, ears open, hands in lap or on the table, feet still, mouth closed. You can praise your child at home when they remember to follow the rules. For example,

‘I can tell you were listening really carefully to that story because you were looking at me and the pictures.’

How to support children’s attention and listening skills in the classroom

Teach the core listening skills

These include:

  • eyes looking
  • ears open
  • hands in lap or on table
  • feet still
  • mouth closed.

Remind children of these often, and praise them when they remember to follow the rules. Rules can be in the form of an attention code, for example, traffic lights (green = free talking, amber = only talk to adults, red = no talking, must listen to adults).

Tell the children how you know they were listening to you, for example,

‘I can tell you were listening really carefully to that information because you were all looking at me.’
You should also:

  • look at the child you’re speaking to
  • get the child’s attention before giving an instruction. Say their name first, wait for them, look or touch the table in front of the child or clap your hands to get attention before speaking
  • make sure every child can see and hear you
  • minimise visual distractions and background noise inside and outside the classroom
  • keep children’s desks free of clutter
  • introduce foot rests for children’s’ seats if they can’t reach the floor

It’s also helpful and important to:

  • slow down your delivery and pause between instructions.  Allow time for slower responding pupils to process instructions/questions
  • use short simple sentences with familiar vocabulary and avoid ambiguous language. Break long instructions into short steps.

What to expect at each age milestone

Choose the age range below to find out how children develop their attention and listening skills at each milestone. You’ll also find suggested activities that will help your child/a child you’re teaching/caring for to develop their skills.


What to expect

Children at this age are very easily distracted.  They can only pay attention for a few moments by the dominant stimulus in the environment.

They may:

  • quieten or alert to the sound of speech
  • turn towards a familiar sound and then begin to locate a range of sounds with accuracy
  • react to interactions with others by smiling, looking and moving.

Activities that help develop their skills


Vary the loudness and intonation of your voice. A baby will watch your face intently and will also enjoy listening to your voice.


Talk face-to-face and give the baby space to respond. Babies learn to take turns by cooing and later making babbling sounds, or even copying a facial expression like sticking their tongue out.

Play games

A baby will enjoy ‘noisy’ toys to experiment with, for example, a tin tray and wooden spoon or a bunch of keys. Older babies will have fun with games of ‘peek-a-boo’ which you can play behind your hand or a chair.

Share books

You can do this while babies settle to sleep or at other quiet times. Tactile books and ‘lift-the-flap’ books will help hold a baby’s attention.

Share nursery rhymes

Sing songs and rhymes during everyday routines. The repetition and rhyming will help a baby listen.



What to expect

Children can concentrate for a short period on an interesting task. Their attention may be rigid and inflexible as they have to cut out other stimuli in the environment so they can concentrate.

Children can only focus on one task at a time. This stage of development is called ‘single channeled.’

They will:

  • listen to and enjoy rhythmic patterns in rhymes and stories
  • demonstrate enjoyment by trying to join in with actions or vocalisations.

Activities that help develop their skills

Expand the number of nursery rhymes

Also include finger rhymes which older babies and small children love. These include:

  • Round and Round the Garden
  • Fly away Peter
  • This is the Way the Farmer Rides.

These games are fun and encourage children to listen and anticipate the exciting end.

See the 0 to 12 months suggested activities for a video of various childrens nursery rhymes.

Encourage children to listen to sounds around them

For example, the phone ringing, dog barking and a fire engine siren. Collect objects that make different sounds. Also, play games to guess which object makes a particular sound.

Encourage a child’s interest in books

Tell simple stories accompanied by pictures that they like. Talk about different sounds such as a tractors (‘chug chug’) and make animal noises.

Play ‘ready, steady, go’ games

Roll a ball to your child and encourage them to return it when you say ‘go’ or build a tower of 3 or 4 bricks and show your child how to knock it down when you say ‘go’.



What to expect

With your help, for example using the child’s name to ‘look’ and ‘watch’, children of this age start to shift their attention from a task to directions.

They will:

  • recognise and respond to familiar sounds, for example, turning round to a knock on the door, looking at or going to the door
  • show an interest in play with sounds, songs and rhymes.

Activities that help develop their skills

Use the child’s name

For those children who find it difficult to ‘listen and do’, say their name before giving an instruction or asking a question.

Continue with rhymes and stories

When children are familiar with the words, try leaving one out and see if they can fill it in, for example, ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a….’

See the 0 to 12 months age range for a video featuring various childrens’ nursery rhymes.

Use puppets and other props

This helps encourage listening and responding when singing a familiar song or reading from a story book.

Play ‘ready steady go’ games

These involve listening for a signal, such as ‘Simon Says’, and use ‘ready, steady….go!’ instructions.

Use different musical instruments

For example, tambourine, triangle and a drum. Make a sound and encourage the child to copy you.

Follow your child’s lead

In play and interaction, talk about the things that interests the child. This will encourage them to shift their attention between the activity and your voice.



What to expect

Children begin to control their own focus of attention. They must still give their full attention (looking and listening) to follow directions.

Children will begin listening to

  • others on a 1-to-1 basis or in small groups when conversation interests them
  • stories with increasing attention and recall.

Activities that help develop their skills

Plan short listening periods

When children listen to others, for example, describe something they have seen or done.

Model being a good listener

By listening to children and taking account of what they say in your responses to them.

Cue children into a change in conversation

For example, ‘now we’re going to talk about….’

Continue to share rhymes, books and stories

Include those from other cultures. If you’re a teacher/carer, ask parents to record regional variations of songs and rhymes.

Listen and remember

Make two sounds, one after the other and let your child copy you in the same order. Try taking turns and using different sounds.

Hide the toy

Ask your child to leave the room while you hide a toy. While they look for the toy make a noise, for example, bang a drum. Make the sound loud when they’re near the toy, and quiet when they’re far away.

Play musical islands

Use four pieces of paper large enough for your child to stand on. Draw or stick a picture on each and then place around the room. Encourage your child to run/dance around the room to some music. When the music stops, tell them to stop and listen to what you’re telling them to do, for example, ‘go to Bob the Builder’, ‘go to Postman Pat.’

Activity strategies

Allocate an adult, or yourself to provide a running commentary of the child’s activities as they play. This strategy teaches the child language relevant to the objects and actions they’re  motivated by. It also allows the child to listen and do at the same time.

Download our Pictures and symbols activity sheet for ideas on how to help children focus their attention on activities, understand spoken language and common routines.

Watch the video below from Great Western Hospitals NHS Trust about using pictures and visual supports with a child at home:


What to expect

At this age, children carry out one activity and at the same time attend to someone else giving them directions. This is called dual-channeled attention.

Most children will have well established dual-channeled attention by the time they begin full-time education.

Activities that help develop their skills

Table top games

By this age, most children can concentrate on a chosen task for quite a long time. Various activities encourage this skill, for example playing Snap, Orchard Toys games for example, shopping lists and lotto games.

Read a story and ask simple questions about it

For example:

  • Who did Little Red Riding Hood visit?
  • What did she take to grandma?
  • Where did she meet the wolf?

Find the animal

Use pictures of animals and scatter them around the room. Make the animal sound and encourage children to match the sound with the animal.

Activity strategies

Alternate between listening or quiet tasks and more active ones

Make frequent use of movement activities to allow energy release breaks between tasks, for example, star jumps and stretching.

Set time limits for the child to carry out activities

For example, for painting a picture or building with bricks. Use a sand timer to show how long the activity will last. Make the time more than achievable to start with, then gradually increase the length of time you expect the child to work for.

Using pictures and visual supports

See the 3 to 4 years age milestone for a video on how you can use pictures and visual supports with a child at home.


What to expect

Children can focus their own attention on one activity for longer periods of time without being reminded. They can listen to information whilst carrying out another simple activity.

They can:

  • follow verbal instructions
  • listen to a story
  • take part in a short conversation.

Activities that help develop their skills

Fruit salad – a group activity

Sit in a circle on chairs.  Select 3 fruits (for example, apple, orange, pear.). Go round the group giving each child a fruit name.

Call out one of the fruits. Everyone who is an ‘apple’ must stand up and change chairs. You can call out 2 fruit names and everyone must change chairs. If you shout out ‘fruit salad’ all fruits must change chairs.

Read a story and ask simple questions about it

For example:

  • Who did Little Red Riding Hood visit?
  • What did she take to grandma?
  • Where did she meet the wolf?

Copy me

Start by playing this as a clapping game.  Clap a rhythm and ask your child to copy. Start with 2 to 3 claps, then gradually build up to longer or more complex rhythms. Your child can then make up a rhythm for you to copy.

You could progress to use musical instruments – drums and tambourines work well.



What to expect

Children can focus their own attention on one activity for longer periods of time without being reminded. They can listen to information whilst carrying out another simple activity.

They can:

  • follow verbal instructions
  • listen to a story
  • take part in a full conversation.

Activities that help develop their skills

Sound effects

Read a story and pause at the appropriate spot for the child to add a sound effect using voice or instruments.

Follow the clap

Sit in a circle. One person must clap and their neighbour must clap after and so on, until the clap reaches the start.  Agree the direction of the clapping before starting.  Develop the game further by using a whistle. When you blow the whistle the direction of the clap must change.

Simon Says

Start off with the simple form of the game, for example copying. Later on, introduce the idea of not responding if the instruction doesn’t start with ‘Simon says…’

Missing words

Read familiar stories and rhymes. Leave out a word and see if the children can fill it in, for example, ‘The cat in the ….?’

Use listening prompts

Download our give me 5 listening prompts poster




What to expect

At this age, young people will focus their own attention:

  • on one activity without support to remain focused
  • in the classroom, screening out some background noise.

They can also follow a conversation or lesson without asking for frequent repetitions, and follow who’s talking in a group.

Activities that help develop their skills in school settings

Barrier games

Download our barrier games activity sheet .

Students work in pairs back-to-back or with a screen between them. One student draws a picture or collection of shapes and explains how to draw this to their partner. When they’ve finished, compare pictures to see how successful they were.

This is a good activity for practicing repair strategies. Encourage students to ask  for information to be repeated or clarify what has been said.

Missing information

Give the student an instruction but deliberately miss out a key piece of information. They must identify what’s missing and ask for it specifically, for example, ‘meet me at the library tomorrow’ (do not give the time).

Ask, listen, check technique

Prompts students to listen closely to conversations, and provides a structure for continuing the conversation. The student asks a question and listens to the answer. They then ask a further question to clarify the answer/get more information

For example;

‘Have you been on holiday this year?’

‘Yes, I went to Italy’

‘Had you been there before?’


Check your child’s hearing

Without the ability to hear, a child can not develop listening skills. If you have any hearing concerns about your child, a child you care for or teach, discuss this with your GP or health visitor, or the child’s parents.