Educator`s Guide to Active Listening
By Leah Davies, M.Ed.
Active listening focuses attention on the speaker and includes listening and restating what was heard. This form of listening helps students feel valued and connected to the adults in their school and enhances mutual understanding. Studies demonstrate that when children sense that they are an accepted part of a school community, they are more motivated to learn.
Active listening can be used in short encounters to defuse a situation. For example, if a child says,”I hate Justin…” the teacher might respond, “You're really angry.” The child may say, “Yes, I am. He hit me for no reason!” Then the teacher might state, “Would you like to write down what happened?” or “Would you like to tell Justin how you feel?” The teacher could then encourage the student to use the “When you ______, I feel__________, because _________” statement.
For example, the child could say, “When you hit me, I felt sad and angry, because I don't treat you that way.” The child may answer, “I'm okay,” or “I'll talk to Justin.” Most children do not like to write down the details of what happened, but it can be offered as an option.
Since the child's feeling was acknowledged, he or she would probably be less resentful. If the teacher had said, “You're okay. Get your book out,” or “You shouldn't be angry,” the student might have absorbed the anger and then later expressed it inappropriately. Helping students express their negative emotions without fear of being judged or punished can have a positive impact on their actions.
When educators participate in active listening, they set aside their prejudices and opinions. They do not disagree, pry, warn, lecture, evaluate, diagnose, or demand. The following words inhibit communication and decrease the chance that the child will deal with his or her own difficulty in a constructive way:
“You should know better...”
“You think you have it bad...”
“Your problem is...”
“You had better...”
“Here is where you are wrong...”
“Who? What? When? Why?” (Asking too many questions can put the child on the defensive.)
Since identifying feelings is a fundamental part of active listening, completing the following activity may be helpful.
Read each child's comment separately, listening carefully for the underlying feelings; discard the content and write only the feelings being expressed. For example, if a child could be feeling frustrated, angry or inadequate if he says, “I hate school!” Write the feeling word or words that you detect in the following statements.
1. My mom's in jail.
2. He tripped me on purpose!
3. I spilled my juice and everyone laughed.
4. My mom had a baby and she doesn't play with me any more.
5. I got an A+ on the test!
6. My grandma died.
7. I had a bad dream and I couldn't go back to sleep.
8. I get to go to the beach!
9. Nobody likes me.
10. She made fun of me.
11. I can't do this work.
12. My dad moved out.
For example, a teacher could respond to the last comment with something like, “You seem very sad.” The student might answer, “My dad may never come back!” The teacher could say, “You're really worried about not seeing your dad again,” and the student might reply, “I'm really going to miss him.” At this point, if the teacher needed to attend to other students, she might express sympathy by saying, “I'm sorry.” In this short interaction the child would feel understood and valued.
In-depth active listening requires effort, yet the time spent with a troubled student will often have beneficial results.
The following are the steps you can use:
1. Locate a private place to meet away from other students, noise, and interruptions. Sit facing the student, make eye contact, be silent and listen.
2. Show interest by giving your undivided attention to the child.
3. Be open, accepting, respectful and nonjudgmental no matter what is being expressed. You are not agreeing with the child, only reflecting what you hear to help further the student's self-understanding.
4. Watch for non-verbal clues and listen for underlying feelings, as well as for information.
5. Make sure your facial expression and body language match what the student is saying. Uncross your arms and legs and relax. If a child says, “My grandpa's in the hospital,” look sad, lean forward, put yourself in the child's place and try to understand his or her perspective.
6. Restate what you think the child said in your own words.
7. You could say something like, “You feel (state the feeling) because (state the content).” However, be careful not to overuse this sentence structure.
8. Avoid long comments; short, simple ones are more effective.
9. Continue to listen and repeat feelings and content heard.
10. Use an occasional nod of encouragement and say “uh-huh” now and then to demonstrate that you hear the student.
11. Ask clarification questions when necessary, such as “Could you tell me more?”
12. Try to avoid misinterpreting what the student says.
13. Help the child feel free to correct any of your misunderstandings by saying something like: “Let me see if I've heard you correctly....” Then after reiterating ask, “Is that right?”
14. Keep the focus on the child and his or her main concern.
15. Summarize by bringing together main thoughts, facts and feelings.
16. Ask the student what he or she will do next.
(Also see Enhancing Children's Emotional Development and Effective Communication)
Active listening takes thought, practice and a desire to put the student's feelings and concerns above your own. Educators use this method to help children cope with their problems. Active listening is also used to neutralize negative emotions and to enhance the adult-child relationship. A former student wrote: “After my mom died, my teacher knew what happened, but when I tried to tell her about it, she walked away. Maybe I would not have felt so alone and maybe my grades would not have fallen if she had listened and acknowledged my sadness.” Apparently, using active listening can make a meaningful difference in a student's life.
(For additional tips, see Helping Children Cope with Anger, Helping Children Cope with Loss, and the Kelly Bear Feelings book).