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Ask The Teacher: How to Get a Child to Listen

Updated: Sep 24, 2021

So chances are that if you are a parent / teacher / babysitter / aunt you have experienced exactly this problem before. You ask a child not to do something, they look at you and then continue to do exactly the thing that you JUST told them not to do! First of all, don't sweat it. This isn't just you and no the child isn't attempting to drive you completely insane either (although it might feel that way.) Below I have outlined some of the most common reasons that behavior continues, even when you might not want it to.


The Child Doesn't Understand This is probably one of the most common reasons for misbehavior, especially in children who are special needs. In order for a child to follow a direction, they first need to understand it. Let's use "Please, do not throw the shoes." as an example. To an adult this seems like a very simple statement. However, to a child who is just learning language, doesn't understand English yet, or who has very severe receptive language delays (this is a disability where someone's understanding of language is delayed and can include taking longer to process a statement) there are four concepts in that sentence that need to be understood and that might be 4 concepts too many. Lets break it down:

  • First they need to understand that please is a polite word the caregiver is using.

  • Then they need to understand that "do not" together means "no"

  • Throw is an action word which needs to be understood

  • Finally, they need to understand what shoes are.

See how this can be a lot? A simple solution for this might be to simply reduce the number of words. Instead of saying don't throw the shoes, wait until the child is doing it again then catch their hand, calmly say "No" and shake your head.

Another way to approach this which is often effective is with pictures. Pictures are often more readily understood than speech alone and can be lifesaving in situations where language is hard for someone to understand. Simple images which depict basic concepts like "no" "yes" "clean up" etc are especially helpful for our little people who have some special needs and for preschoolers just learning how language works. If you do not want to make your own set I have a generic version of them available here. I will also make custom sets specifically for the family and child.

The Child Understands but You have not Clearly Outlined the Expectations

Sometimes even though you feel like you have told your child 50 000 times not to do something, somehow it was unclear this was undesirable behavior. In this case try one more time to make it exceptionally clear this is not a behavior you are going to tolerate. To do this state what behavior you want to stop, followed by a punishment that you are willing to follow through with that is directly related to the behavior. (For example: if they are throwing their shoes, it would in this case make no sense to take away T.V. for a week. It's also something your not as likely to follow through with.) Try something like "If you continue to throw your shoes, we are not going to go outside." This gives the child one more chance to self correct the behavior (which is ideally what we want!) If the child stops and self corrects then we reward that by not following through with the punishment. Behavior solved! If not however, then we need to move onto the next step.

The Child DOES Understand and Knows the Consequence but Keeps Going....

So, you know this kiddo, and you are VERY sure that they understood all the words that came out of your mouth (And if you are sure they did, then probably, they did.) Still, they keep throwing those shoes!!! First thing we are going to do is follow through with whatever consequence we outlined. (because we never say what we don't mean) but then comes the tricky part. Now it's time to do a bit of detective work. All behavior is in some way communication. It's not functional or even necessarily safe communication but there is a reason why that child is throwing the shoes and if we want to solve the behavior long term then we will need to figure out why the behavior is happening. In this case it could be a few things, lets break them down.

1) They are trying to tell you something but don't have the words

Words are hard! Especially if you don't know that many. They are even harder if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired! (H.A.L.T. for short) Just think about the number of times as an adult that you thought: Wow that person made me so upset I wish I had said something! This is because when we are any of the things listed above in our fun acronym the chemicals in our brain make it harder for us to think logically and emotions take over. It's no different for a kid. Our little people might be throwing the shoes because they are trying to tell us they are Hungry and tired but just can't find the words for "Food and nap now!"

Alternatively, the shoes might hurt and are too tight but they don't know how to say that. Maybe they don't want to go on a walk. What they are trying to communicate will be individual for every child and every situation but remaining calm and asking the child to stop and use words might help. Get down to the child's eye level, if they child likes touch you can take their hands and say something like "Use your words." Give the child time to form the words they are looking for. For some kids this can look like a 30 second wait, which feels really long but wait them out. Often when asked to speak, my experience is that the child will try and tell you what was wrong. The Behavior is them asking for the adult to listen, by getting down and asking you are showing that they have your attention.

2) Curiosity

You have a little person suddenly very interested in exploring the effects of falling objects. Typically we see this when the child is throwing shoes and then giggling about it like it's hilarious. To them it probably is! This would be true for any behavior, including running away, they are looking to explore the world around them. Exploration is wonderful but we need to do it in a safe way. Thankfully, there are absolutely ways to fix this. We need to replace the activity with something safer so they get the same exploration. For example, if they are throwing things to explore gravity then we can give them something soft to throw instead and let them watch the object come up and fall down. You could even give them a bunch of objects to throw and let them experiment with different things. This will be true for any exploration based behavior. The trick to solving this is to replace the activity with one that is safe but still gives the child the chance to explore what they are looking for. Sometimes this takes a few tries to get right but once you get it the behavior will stop.

3) They want attention

I think this gets demonized a lot but before we are too hard on the child, try and remember that attention is a basic human need. We are social and like to be recognized by our family and peers and it gives us a sense of safety. The difference is that as adults we have (hopefully) learned how to ask for this attention in ways that are healthy for both us and the people around us. Children are still learning how to do this so when they are feeling the need to ask for your attention they might use a behavior that they know and understand you dislike in order to get that attention. In this instance we do not want to give the child attention for this, because that will reinforce that they can use this behavior to get that attention and in so many ways this is doing a disservice to the child. (Imagine if every time you wanted your best friends attention you threw her shoes at her! You wouldn't have a friend long!) Instead we want to reinforce that it is calm appropriate behavior that will get your attention. Ideally speaking, eventually they would ask for it calmly and be able to wait until you can give it.

First, remove the object they are using to try and get your attention. Put it somewhere they can not reach or is out of sight, (or if it's running away outside bring the child inside) and tell them what will get them your attention. Something like "When you can show me you are calm, you can have some cuddles." This gives the child some clear expectations of what is acceptable and what you are looking for. It may take your child some time to show you that calm. Tantrums often come here. They didn't get what they wanted. Dig deeeeeeeeppp for the patience to wait this one out. (maybe pour some wine, I'm not judging)

As soon as they show you they are calm however, or whatever behavior you asked them to show you, immediately give them the attention they wanted. Also, at random intervals when they are showing that behavior again, give them attention, just because! Solving this will require consistency on your part but over time, the child will start to learn what will and won't get your attention and instances where they use negative behavior to attempt to get that attention will decrease.

Try and Remember Kids are Learning

After all of this, try and have a little patience for both yourself and the kids. Your child misbehaving is not a sign of bad caregiving, or the sign of a bad child. Children are naturally going to test the limits and boundaries you have outlined and unfortunately this means on occasion will need to be corrected. Connecting with others in your community can be a super helpful way to destress. Also if you are having long term issues with behavior management there are specialists (like me!) who can help. Sometimes behavior is complicated and needs some advanced problem solving methods! If you are super stuck and want someone to work with your whole family shoot me a message on the contact page!


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