Is your preschooler listening?  

Get Their Attention the First Time

It happens to every parent, and it’s done by the sweetest children.  

Your child is within feet of you, and you’ve asked her to put on her shoes so you can leave for school.  She doesn’t move or take her eyes from her toy.  You ask again.  Still, no response.  After three or four requests, you’re mad.  Sometimes you do it for her, just so you don’t have to hear yourself speak the same words.

Of course, if you were getting ready to go to Disney World, she’d have had on her shoes before your words ended.

Or there’s this:  you ask your child to go and look for his brother’s stuffed dog, because your hands are full with another task.  He grudgingly complies, leaves the room, then comes back thirty seconds later, insisting he’s looked everywhere and can’t find it.  You sigh heavily and walk down two flights of steps for the fortieth time that day and find the dog lying in the middle of the family room floor in plain sight.

But, if you had told him you’d take him out to lunch only if you could find a fast food joint with an indoor play area, he’d spot one half kilometre away across a congested four-lane highway in a rainstorm.

What gives? Why don’t preschoolers listen, and what can we do as parents to keep from losing it?

Early childhood education professionals would agree that although preschoolers and kindergartners are not as “me” centered as two- and three-year-olds, their primary concerns are still for their own wants and desires.  If what you’re requesting doesn’t interest them, or have a benefit for them tied to it, they’re not likely to respond quickly.

It’s easy to understand, since it’s difficult even for adults to pay attention to something uninteresting.  But that doesn’t make it less frustrating.

So, what can parents do to overcome ignoring, “selective” listening, and lack of attention?

Try these tips:  

1)  Give One Warning—This is what many professionals say on this issue.  Look your child in the eyes (make sure they’re looking at you) and tell them gently but firmly that they have a set amount of minutes before you will ask them to complete a task (i.e. clean up their toys, set the table for dinner, put on their shoes).  Even if they can’t tell time and don’t yet appreciate the concept of time, stick to it.  Many parents make the mistake of fudging the stated time because they get a phone call or need to complete a task first.  But if we want our kids to pay attention, we need to walk the walk.  Don’t give another warning in ten minutes.  Give only one, and follow it, yourself.

2)  Attach a Consequence—Kids listen when they know there are consequences attached to failure to comply with your requests.  For instance, if your child never puts on his shoes when he’s asked, give him his five minute warning so he knows you’re going to ask.  After five minutes, say, “Jason, it’s time to put your shoes on.  If you don’t put on your shoes, I’m going to give you an extra job today.”  Name the extra job, like taking out the trash or cleaning up the toys—and make it one he doesn’t like.  He’ll get it eventually.

It’s important not to attach your request with a benefit, like, “Ashley, if you clean up your toys, you can have some fruit snacks.”  Kids will remember this and want a reward for simply following instructions.

If you choose to take something away as the consequence, don’t threaten to take away something you’re not fully prepared to take.  If you tell Jason you won’t go to a friend’s house if he refuses to put on his shoes, and those trips are actually going to be fun for you, too, then you’ll be eating crow when you don’t follow through.  To boot, your child will not respect what you say and you’ll move farther away from her compliance with your requests.

3)  Follow through—If your child doesn’t comply after the warning/request, follow through on making her do the extra job or adhere to the consequence, and do it quickly.  If you take too long to require it, they’ll forget why they were assigned the task.

4)  Be consistent—Repeat this process every time you ask your child to do something if you’re having a hard time getting her to listen.  Eventually, she will understand and will know that she needs to do something the first time she’s asked.

Well, at least she will most times.

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