This week’s listener question is from Debbie,
“My eight-year-old son has ADHD, and I’m constantly frustrated with his lack of listening. I’ll tell him something or ask him to do something, and he acts like he doesn’t hear me, or says, “Yup”, but then doesn’t do it. Sometimes I tell him it’s time to do something, and he just runs the other way and refuses. I feel like I spend all day trying to get him to listen and do what he’s told. I’ve tried all the reward charts and consequences, but they don’t have a consistent impact, and they just create more work for me to manage. How can I get him to understand that he needs to listen and do things the first time he’s told?”
In this episode, I will address the challenge most parents face; how to get kids to listen better! Whether it’s a young child, a stubborn child, one who has ADHD, is on the autism spectrum, has anxiety, has executive function challenges, or has behavior challenges, the principles and effective approaches I share work for all ages and stages of development.
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Executive functions are weaker in younger children and those with developmental challenges
- Executive functions are the higher-level cognitive functions in the prefrontal cortex part of the brain
- Allows for things like organizing, prioritizing, time management, regulation, etc.
- Research now shows that these executive functions aren’t fully in place until young adulthood and develop over time
- Listening, processing, and being able to follow instructions may be difficult for some kids because many executive functions are involved:
- Do they have the ability to shift attention?
- Is there difficulty knowing where to focus their attention and mind?
- Is there difficulty with working memory? (i.e. take information in, hold on to it long enough to process and to do something with it?)
- Do they have difficulty with emotional regulation?
- Are you asking them to stop what they are doing and shift to something they are not as excited to do or want to do?
- Remember, kids with neurological challenges have even slower processing ability; taking the information in and making sense of it
Rewards & consequence approach to listening
- Typically implementing rewards or consequences for kids with neurodevelopmental challenges for listening skills doesn’t work; at best you may get short-term compliance
- Instead, teach them the skills needed
- Most kids, at some point, need additional support in developing executive function skills so they can listen effectively, process quicker, retain information, and react/respond appropriately
Steps to follow when kids struggle to listen
- Get a close “zone of connection”:
- Get physically close enough to them so they realize you are communicating with them
- As humans develop starting with infancy, the zone of connection is very small and widens over time
- Kids with neurodevelopmental or behavioral kinds of challenges often need a closer zone of connection than we might expect, based on their chronological age
- Wait until their attention shifts to you. You know this when:
- Have they stopped what they’re doing, and sort of paused?
- Has their gaze shifted to you? –Although eye contact is not always an indication, as they may be aware and listening but just not making eye contact, especially with kids on the spectrum
- Once that has happened, use a statement like, “I’m going to tell you something important”, or “I have something to tell you”
- Be clear, calm, firm, and as succinct as possible with the information
- Then allow some processing time
- Once it is apparent they have processed the information, ask the child to state it back
- If it is a multi-step process and they are older, offer the option to write it down or have them write it out
Steps to follow when upset or dysregulation arises
- Having a close zone of connection is great, especially for resistive kids or ones that get easily distressed or dysregulated because it allows you to be there with them in the moment to provide a container for whatever their emotions or behaviors might be
- Empathize and acknowledge their distress
- Allow processing time and stay with them to calm down and co-regulate with them
- Then help initiate what needs to happen next rather than just telling them
- If a child runs away, again a close zone of connection is very helpful
- Create a supportive, physical “container” or boundary with a gentle touch on the hand, shoulder, etc., ahead of giving notification that you are telling them something important
- Timers or time warnings can be helpful in preparing them to listen, especially for transitions
Building long-term listening skills
- First, understand what/where the weak executive functions are for your child, and then finding ways to strengthen and work on those
- Playing any kind of game that requires them to practice their working memory, i.e. impulse control, attention focusing, and auditory information to strengthen executive functions
- e.g. telephone, memory card or auditory games, stop and go games, simon says, freeze tag, etc.
- As kids get older, talk about these kinds of challenges that come up after the fact when emotions aren’t running high and help problem-solve with them for next time
- Offer some suggestions, ask them to offer ideas, and make a plan together
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Listener’s Question … 00:00:53
Importance of Executive Function … 00:02:10
Rewards & Consequences for Listening… 00:05:25
How to Develop Executive Function … 00:06:40
Upset and Not Listening … 00:20:15
Building Long-Term Listening … 00:24:30
Episode Wrap up … 00:26:40
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show, I am Dr. Nicole, and on today’s episode, I am answering a question from a listener. I get lots of questions every week, and this is a great way to provide answers that many of you might find helpful. If you have a question you’d like me to consider answering on a future episode, email it to email@example.com and you just might hear it on an upcoming show.
Now on to today’s question. This question comes from Debbie, who writes: “My eight year old son has ADHD, and I’m constantly frustrated with his lack of listening. I’ll tell him something or ask him to do something, and he acts like he doesn’t hear me, or says, “Yup”, but then doesn’t do it. Sometimes I tell him it’s time to do something, and he just runs the other way and refuses. I feel like I spend all day trying to get him to listen and do what he’s told. I’ve tried all the reward charts and consequences, but they don’t have a consistent impact, and they just create more work for me to manage. How can I get him to understand that he needs to listen and do things the first time he’s told?”
Well, Debbie, this is a great question, and something that I think lots of parents can relate to, whether they have a child like yours with ADHD, or maybe a child on the autism spectrum, or kids with anxiety or behavior challenges, or even just kids in general.
So let’s dive into this, and as always, let me start with the big picture of what’s going on here because this provides a foundation for us to really understand what strategies are going to be helpful. So it’s important to know that in a child with ADHD or any kind of related neurodevelopmental type of issue, executive function, challenges and weaknesses are a big part of it. Those executive functions are the higher-level cognitive functions in that prefrontal cortex part of the brain that allows for things like organizing, prioritizing, time management, regulation, all of those types of things. We know that those executive function skills are weak in kids with neurodevelopmental issues, in kids with any type of neurodivergent brain, and in younger kids as well. These executive functions continue to develop over time, and in fact, research now shows that these executive functions aren’t fully in place until young adulthood. So that sets the stage for understanding why something like listening and being able to follow instructions or process that may be difficult, because there are some of the specific executive functions involved with that: They need to be able to shift their attention away from whatever they’re doing or whatever they’re thinking about to you and to what you’re talking about and wanting them to do. So shifting attention is the big one. They may have a difficulty with knowing where to focus their attention and their mind at that moment. Difficulties with working memory. Working memory is a specific type of memory that allows us to take something in and hold on to it long enough to do something with it. So an example would be me saying to a child, “Go get your shoes on, take the trash out, and come in and wash your hands.” That child needs to be able to hold on to all three of those things in their mind, sort of on the whiteboard of their mind, hold on to it long enough to be able to go through all of these things and get them all done, and we know that working memory is weak in kids with these kinds of challenges.
Also, there may be difficulties with emotional regulation that are getting in the way here. This requires your child sometimes if you’re giving an instruction or telling them to do something, they need to stop something that they’re enjoying, or that they prefer to do, and now they need to shift to something they’re not as excited about or that they don’t want to do, and they may struggle to regulate their feelings around that, and then their behaviors as well. We also know that kids with these issues tend to have slower processing in general, processing being the ability to take in information and make sense of it, so they can do something appropriate with it. Kids with slower processing are going to struggle with direction following, listening, comprehending, and managing those task demands as well. So, it’s important to understand that these are the types of things that are likely contributing to your son having difficulty with listening or following instructions. And I just want to be clear that usually when we say that a child isn’t listening, or they’re having trouble listening, we don’t actually mean that they’re not hearing or that there’s a problem with their auditory functions right there. The sound is going in, they’re hearing what it is that we’re saying, but there is some kind of breakdown in the process of that information coming in, and then processing it and responding to it appropriately. So that’s the listening part that we’re talking about here.
The other big picture thing I want to mention before we get into tactics and strategies is an important thing that Debbie pointed out in her question, which is that she’s tried reward charts, she’s tried consequences, she’s tried those kinds of approaches, and they didn’t really work. That is very common, and that’s why these types of strategies and tools are really ineffective for kids with these challenges. At best, you might get some short-term compliance, where if they’re earning stickers or something towards something, they may be able to really try to focus on it and do it for a short period of time, but over time, it’s not going to be a helpful strategy. Many kids, even when they’re trying hard, they’re still not able to do this without some additional support. What’s needed is not rewards and punishments, but teaching of skills. These kids need support to develop the skills, particularly in these executive functions that I mentioned, that help them to be able to do these kinds of things more appropriately, more quickly, and allow them to hold on to information better. So we’re really looking at skills that we need to be working on with them, and rewards and consequences are not going to accomplish that.
So now that we’ve got the foundation laid with our big picture ideas, let’s dive into strategies to use in the moment. So if you have a child who you know struggles with taking in the information that you’re giving, the directions that you’re giving, the requests that you’re making, the information that you’re providing, they struggle to take that in and to respond appropriately to it in the moment, here are some specific techniques, sort of a process, that’s going to be helpful: The first thing is that you want to make sure that physically, you are as close to them as you need to be for them to realize that you are there and you are communicating something important to them. One of the number one mistakes that I see parents, teachers and other people who work with kids make is they’re giving directions or giving information with way too much distance between them and the child, and this comes down to an important developmental concept called “Zone of Connection.” The zone of connection is the term that we use to describe the amount of space or distance that can exist between you and the child, where the child is able to tune in to you, be connected to you and engage with you around what’s going on. If you think about the zone of connection that we have with
infants, with babies, it’s a really close zone of connection, right? We hold them really close, we know that if there’s any amount of distance between us and them, they are not aware of us, they’re not tuned in to what’s going on with us, so we need a really close zone of connection. And as kids grow and develop, we’re able to widen that zone of connection. Toddlers are able to be in the same room with us, or at a bit of a distance from us, and still be able to tune into us and be aware. By the time kids get to kindergarten, for example, we expect that they’ve now developed to the point where they have a zone of connection of, if they’re sitting in the back desk in a classroom and the teachers way
up at the front of the room, that they’re able to tune into and engage with what the teacher is saying and what the teacher is doing. So that’s just an example of how the zone of connection should expand over time. But here’s the challenge: For kids with neurodevelopmental differences, kids with mental health issues, kids with behavioral kinds of challenges, often, they need a closer zone of connection than we might expect, based on their chronological age. So, one of the things that Debbie is pointing out here with her eight-year-old son is that he doesn’t seem to be tuning into and engaging with the information she’s providing. And I don’t know what type of zone of connection she’s using, but I can bet that she’s probably expecting that her eight-year-old is able to handle a wider zone of connection than he is. When we call out from the kitchen to our kids throughout the entire house and say “Hey, dinner’s ready, come on in and eat”, we’re expecting that our kids can operate across that wide zone of connection, that wherever they are in the house, if they can hear our voice, that they’re able to tune into us, shift their attention to us, process what we’re saying, and then take action on it. Well, with many kids, and in particular, this child that Debbie’s talking about, they can’t operate around a wide zone of connection like that. Their executive function weaknesses don’t allow them to do that. So one of the first things that we want to do here from a strategy standpoint, is get a close zone of connection. You have to determine what that is for your child. For some kids, it means we need to come into the same room that they’re in, maybe stand in the doorway or something like that. For other kids, they’re going to need a zone of connection where we literally come up right close to them, and maybe even a physical zone of connection, where we place our arm on their shoulder, or we put our hand on theirs, or we get right in their space so that they recognize that we are there, and they are able to shift their attention to us. This shifting attention is so important, because the difference between hearing and listening really depends on: Is my attention with you? Is my mind on you and what you are doing and communicating in this moment? So when we say something to a kid, like “You need to clean up your toys and get ready for bed”, they may physically hear that, but if their mind isn’t tuned in to us, if they haven’t fully shifted their attention and focus to the information that we’re giving, then they’re not going to be able to listen. They’re not processing that, and they’re not going to take action on that. So we want to get a close zone of connection, we want to get as close as we need to, to them, and then wait for their attention to shift towards us. One of the ways we can tell if their attention has shifted towards us and they’re focused on us is: Have they stopped what they’re doing, and sort of paused what they’re doing? That’s one indication that they’re aware that we’re there and something else is going to happen. For most kids, part of what indicates attention shifting is they have shifted their gaze towards us. They’re now looking in our direction. Now, I caution here a little bit because there are absolutely kids on the autism spectrum, kids with ADHD, kids with some other kinds of issues, where eye contact does not indicate that they’re focusing on us and that their attention has shifted. It’s very possible for them to have their mind on us, even though their eyes aren’t. But when we’re talking about neurotypical or typically developing kids, their eye gaze will shift towards us to indicate that they’re aware that we’re there and their mind is with us. So we want to look for those cues that, “Okay, my child is aware that I’m here, their attention has shifted towards me.” Once that has happened, we now can use a statement like, “I’m going to tell you something important”, or “I have something to tell you”, or just a pause, wait for the attention to shift, and then we let them know what it is that we want them to do or that they need to know about in that moment. So there’s this close zone of connection, there’s waiting for their mind and attention to shift to us, and then maybe letting them know “I’m going to say something important”, or just launching into what it is that you need to tell them.
When giving them the information or the instruction, you want to be brief but clear. Don’t use a lot of extra language and talking. That just bogs down the brain’s processing systems even more. So you want to clearly and succinctly state what needs to happen. “It’s time to clean up toys, we’re getting ready for bed”, or “It’s time to get your shoes on”, or “I need you to come help me in the kitchen”. Being clear, calm, firm, as succinct as possible. Not a lot of extra talking. Then you want to allow some processing time. For some kids, they can immediately take in what you’re saying, understand it and move forward with it. Other kids may need an extra second or two, or more to fully take in what it is that you’ve said, make sense of it, and move forward with it. So you don’t want to be rushed. You want to clearly state what you need to state, then allow some processing time. When it’s apparent that they have taken that in, maybe they start to try to move to do whatever it is or they start to complain, or you can tell that they’ve taken it in and they’ve understood what you said. The important next step is to ask the child to state it back. This is a way of checking for understanding. This is a tool to make sure that they have taken in, made sense of and clearly comprehend and understand what you’re asking them to do. So I might say “It’s time to clean up the toys now. We’re going to get ready to leave.” Then I’m going to allow a moment for that to sink in, make sure they’ve processed it, then I’m going to say, “Tell me what you’re going to do”, or “Tell me what I asked you to do.” The reason for that is because some kids go throughout their entire childhoods at home, at school, wherever, they may seem like they have taken it in and understood what we’ve said, or we may assume that they processed it and comprehend it, and they may not have done that. So by checking for understanding, we’re making sure that the message that we intended to deliver is the message that they received. This is also a way of checking that their mind and attention was actually with you. Because if they’re not able to state it back, you say, “Oh. Hmm, I don’t think you were focused on what I was saying,” or “You missed what I was telling you, let’s try it again.” And then you say, “I’m going to tell you something important. I’m going to wait. You let me know when your mind is with me.” So you sort of let them know, “Okay, you didn’t get it the first time, I’m going to make sure this time you let me know when your mind is with me.” So you look for those cues that they’re with you. They may even be able to say, “Okay, I’m listening.” You say, “Great, it’s time to put the toys back on the shelf”, or “It’s time to clean up”, or whatever the instruction is. Then you wait again, let them process and then you say, “Okay, tell me what you’re going to do”, and see if they’re able to state it back to you. So this checking for understanding is not only making sure that they comprehend and accurately processed the message and the information, but also that they were tuned in and that their mind was with you in the first place. So this is key, this cuts down on your frustration and allows them to be much more successful.
Now another thing you can do here, especially if it’s multiple steps, if there are several things you’re asking them to do: You can say something like, “Let’s think about if we need a strategy, that was a lot of things. I told you to get your shoes on, take the trash out to the bin, and then come back in and wash your hands. That was a lot of things. Let’s think about if we need to write that down”, and you can give the option “Do you think you need to write it down? Will that help? Should I write it down for you?” You can have that discussion there. If you know they’re going to say “No, no, no, I don’t need you to write it down”, and that you know that they’re not going to be successful with it, you can preempt that by being proactive and saying, “Okay, you were able to tell me what you’re going to do. I know that sometimes that’s tough when there’s a lot of things. I wrote it down for you so you can have this list to help you remember and get it done.” So if you have a child who that’s helpful for, you can write the list for them, especially if it’s lots of things you’re asking, and then they can use that as a support. That’s also modeling a very important and beneficial strategy for kids with these executive function weaknesses, that if you can’t necessarily rely on a strong working memory, you can use a strategy to help support that by writing it down. As kids get older, you can then put that responsibility on that and say, “I’ve got several things I need you to do, I’m going to tell them to you. But before I do that, please get a pencil and a piece of paper to help you remember.” Then you can wait for them to do that, then you can say, “Okay, I’m going to have you write these things down”, and you can go through them one at a time, and then the checking for understanding is looking at the list and making sure they wrote them down correctly. If they didn’t, then that lets you know that they didn’t process accurately what you were saying, and it allows you to correct that understanding and clarify with them, so that they can be successful then with a list of things that you’ve asked them to do. So that’s another part of the strategy, especially as kids get older. So that’s the core strategy there for helping kids to develop the skills for tuning in, listening, comprehending, and taking action on what it is that you’re telling them.
Now what happens is, as you practice this: Getting a close zone of connection, making sure their attention in their mind is with you, giving them processing time, checking for understanding, over time, this gets easier, quicker and better for them, and you can expand the zone of connection, and they are better able to to manage these things, but this is a good general set of steps to go through to help kids who need support with this.
Now let’s talk about kids who get distressed or emotionally and behaviorally dysregulated because they don’t like what you’re telling them or what you’re asking them to do. So this is another part where having a close zone of connection comes in handy. If you know that you’re about to tell your child something that could be dysregulating for them, that they’re not going to like, that they’re going to get distressed about, having a close zone of connection is great, because it allows you to be there with them in the moment to provide a container for whatever their emotions or behaviors might be. So if your child becomes distressed, “I don’t want to do that. No!”, refusing or whatever, you can be there to clearly provide empathy, “I get it, you don’t want to do this, I understand you were having fun doing this other thing”, you can empathize and acknowledge their feelings, and then support them in giving them some processing time to calm down, to co-regulate with you, to settle themselves, and then you can help initiate what needs to happen next, “I’ll help you walk to the door to get your shoes”, or “I’ll come with you to get you started with emptying the dishwasher,” or whatever it is. So that’s the benefit of having a close zone of connection: You can be right there to help work them through whatever uncomfortable feelings or reactions they’re having. Now for a child who runs away, because Debbie mentioned in her question that sometimes she’ll say something, and he’ll just run away and say, “No!” This is also where a close zone of connection comes in very handy. If you have a child who just says “No!”, and avoids and tries to run away, by getting a close zone of connection, if you have a child who is prone to do that, you can take their hands gently in yours right at the outset and say “I’m about to tell you something important”, put your hand on their shoulder or gently take their hands in yours, what you’re doing there is creating a supportive physical container or boundary to have them stay with you to work through what’s coming next so that it doesn’t turn into a situation where they just go from 0 to 100, and now they’re escalated and they’re running away, and you’re chasing them, or whatever is happening there. So this close zone of connection helps you be able to create this physical boundary and container to work through this. So you’re going to let him know what you need to let him know, and then you’re going to even physically support him to take action on it, “I know you don’t want to empty the dishwasher”, stay there with him, maybe even with that physical zone of connection to create that container, let him work through his distress, and then say, “We’re going to unload the dishwasher together”, and you’ve already got him by the hand, and you’re going to walk into the kitchen, and you’re going to co-regulate by engaging with him. Maybe you’re going to hand him the dishes, and he’s going to put them away. This is a really good, supportive way of helping kids through the uncomfortable feelings they have around these things by being there to support, to help provide guidance for regulating their emotions and behaviors without creating an escalation where they’re running away and refusing, and now you’re upset, and all of that. So that close physical zone of connection can be helpful for resistive kids, kids who have a tendency to run away from the situation. “I’ll help you get to the bathroom, we’ll walk there together”, and you walk them into the bathroom, and maybe you put the toothpaste on the toothbrush and hand them the toothbrush, those types of things. Hopefully, that gives you some ideas of how that can look, but it starts with these basic foundational steps of close zone of connection, however close that needs to be for your child, and working through it that way.
Another strategy that can be helpful here is you can use some timers or time warnings to prepare kids for important information you’re going to provide, especially if it’s a transition. So if they’re doing something they really enjoy, you can say, “In five minutes, I’m going to tell you something really important about what’s coming next”, you can set a little visual timer, a sand timer, something like that that helps give them some preparation. That can be helpful for some kids as well. Obviously, that’s not necessary all the time and isn’t going to be effective for all kids, but for some kids, that’s a helpful tool.
In terms of longer-term strategies here of improving executive functions, I’ve done other episodes on this on the podcast, and there are lots of resources on the website, but playing games to strengthen executive functions can be great. All of these executive functions were talking about: Attention shifting working memory, being able to stay focused on something, knowing where to focus your attention, processing information more quickly. Games can be helpful for that. So games like telephone, passing a message down the line, can be great for strengthening those. Any kind of memory game is great, whether it’s like memory card games or auditory memory games or games of showing a tray of items, having them look at it, then removing the tray and taking one or two items away, putting it back and seeing if they can identify what’s missing. Any kind of game that requires them practicing that working memory can be really helpful. Stop and go games practices impulse control, really focusing attention on auditory information. So red light, green light, Simon says, freeze, freeze dancing, any of those kinds of things, those help strengthen the executive function. So that’s the longer-term strategy here is understanding what the weak executive functions are for your child, and then finding ways to strengthen and work on those. You can also, as kids get older, talk about these kinds of challenges that come up, after the fact when emotions aren’t running high and problem-solve them for next time. You can sit down with an eight-year-old, as is in the case with Debbie’s child, or certainly an older child and say, “Here’s something I’m feeling really frustrated about. I feel like every time I ask you to do something, we run into problems”, and lay it out and say, “So I’d like to problem-solve, how to make this better for both of us. Here are some ideas I have. What ideas do you have?”, and engaging your kids in understanding how you’re feeling about it, and making a plan together. That teaches important problem-solving skills as well.
So hopefully, that information, those strategies, those ideas are helpful for Debbie and any of the rest of you who are struggling with getting your kids to listen, follow directions, follow through on things the first time. Remember, if you have a question you’d like to hear answered on a future show, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can put “Podcast Question” in the subject line, that helps us sort those. Thank you as always for listening and being here, and I will catch you back next time.