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My mom is a devoted grandmother (a.k.a. “Grammy”), but lately she’s been complaining that my boys seem too busy to “listen” to her. “They’re preoccupied,” she says, or “they’re distracted by their devices.” Yes, they are getting older and are less interested in sitting down with Grammy to read or play board games. But, given that my mom pointed out their need for better communication and listening skills and questioned whether I teach them what I teach my students, I thought it might be time to refresh some strategies at home. Even more importantly, I want to help my sons recognize how their behavior is making Grammy and others feel.
The conversation with my mom was a good reminder to revisit what I so often teach others: how to listen with our whole body and how important it is to practice this concept outside the classroom or clinic, and especially at home. For the parents and grandparents out there facing a similar lack of attention from their kids, here’s some background information on whole body listening and a list of activities to try at home.
Listening – What’s It All About?
The technique of whole body listening helps improve attentional skills by enlisting multiple body parts, not just the ears. Speech pathologist Susanne Poulette Truesdale came up with this powerful (and now very popular) concept and wrote an article about it in 1990. This innovative tool makes the act of listening less abstract and more concrete by providing roles for the different body parts and explaining how each is involved. For example, the eyes help with listening when they look at or toward the person who is speaking. The arms, legs, mouth, and torso do their part by remaining as calm and quiet as possible while listening. The brain contributes a crucial part by focusing on the speaker and trying to understand what the speaker is saying.
Over the years therapists teaching whole body listening expanded the concept to include a relational aspect by adding a role for the heart, which serves as a reminder to show that you are thinking and caring (in most circumstances) about the listener and what is being said. Perspective taking, the empathic act of putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, has become a part of whole body listening, helping to facilitate an emotional bond between speaker and listener. Listening with the heart should be explained and modified for people who find it difficult to see another person’s perspective and to understand that you don’t have to care about everyone you listen to.
In a more recent article (2013), Truesdale stresses that the most critical part of whole body listening takes place in the brain. She states that “when we are asking someone to think about what we are saying, we are in essence asking for the listener’s brain to be connected and tuned-in.” As you can see, listening with the whole body is an active, cognitive behavior that is extremely complex in nature. When we ask someone to “listen” or “pay attention,” we may not realize that along with what we’re asking comes the unspoken expectation that we want them to also stop whatever they are doing or thinking about and “show” us that they are listening. To many people (including Grammy), that means listeners show that their whole body is engaged (looking, keeping still, thinking about what was said, etc.). And, in addition to keeping certain body parts still, it takes regulation and cognitive control to be successful at making them inactive.
Taking a deeper look at whole body listening reveals that it requires a lot from the brain and the body, including sensory processing (integrating all of the body senses), executive functioning (self-control of the brain and body) and perspective taking (thinking of others, what they are saying, and why they are saying it). Given the complexities, we must also realize that this task cannot be accomplished by everyone. Truesdale describes whole body listening as “a tool, not a rule,” emphasizing its flexible nature, both in how it is being demonstrated as well as by whom. Those who find it too challenging or anxiety provoking to keep certain body parts still or to make eye contact should not be asked to do so. We also need to use care in not representing a certain series of actions as being the only way to show whole body listening (e.g., feet on floor, hands on desk, head facing forward, body erect and at attention). Accommodations can and should be made depending on the child’s needs and learning style. For more information, read my related article “Taking a Deeper Look at Whole Body Listening: It’s a Tool, Not a Rule.”
From the Classroom/Clinic to the Living Room and Beyond
Listening skills provide essential building blocks for understanding content and context, deciphering social cues, communicating with others, and developing relationships and life skills. However, it’s more than just a socially expected norm, and is now woven into the Common Core Standards in which grades K-12 have at least one cooperative listening standard. For example, in Kindergarten, it is expected that students will “follow agreed-upon rules for discussions (e.g., listening to others and taking turns speaking about the topics and texts under discussion).” Teachers use these standards to evaluate their students and many therapists develop goals and lessons to support those who might need extra help in these areas.
Parents and other caregivers can help children improve their listening skills by practicing them at home. Research points to the value of bridging the learning that takes place at school and in the home (Koegel, 2011). Rather than reminding (or nagging) kids about listening, try some of these games and other activities. We’ve also included some helpful hints and strategies about working with whole body listening no matter where you find yourself and your kids.
Play Games, Sing Songs, Read!
- For younger kids, play games that build listening skills, like telephone (whispering the same message from one person to the next).
- Play games that develop self-regulation and listening skills, including Freeze Dance and Red Light, Green Light.
- Sing songs to reinforce whole body listening vocabulary. For instance, in the song “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” substitute whole body listening vocabulary of “eyes and ears, mouth and hands,” etc.
- Read books about listening, including Liam Labradoodle Learns Whole Body Listening (Truesdale, 2016), Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns to Listen (Howard Binkow, 2006), Whole Body Listening Larry at Home, Whole Body Listening Larry at School (Sautter and Wilson, 2011). Other children’s books show listening situations that can also be discussed and used as teaching tools.
Show and Tell!
- Use a Mr. Potato Head to talk about the body parts involved with whole body listening.
- Provide photos or drawings to show what whole body listening looks like in different situations (e.g., at the dinner table vs. in the car). Encourage your child to “match the picture” (Ward and Jacobsen).
- Prime your child for what listening should look like prior to engaging in a particular situation, such as a concert or a graduation. Post a visual of whole body listening in a common area and review the hidden rules that may be unfamiliar to the child.
- For all ages, role-play various scenarios, such as a classroom lesson, birthday party, and dinner table conversation and focus on the type of listening behavior expected for each one.
- Use a Social Behavior Map (Winner, 2007) to map out and discuss the expected and unexpected listening behaviors for various situations and how these behaviors might make others feel.
- Use a visual tool! Put up a wall poster of Whole Body Listening Larry (Sautter and Wilson, 2011) for in-the-moment talks about listening when situations arise during the day. Especially helpful in the mornings to help kids stay organized as they start their day.
- During meals, have family members take turns showing the group something (a drawing, book, an item, etc.) and talking about it. Emphasize the importance of giving the speaker full attention through whole body listening.
Helpful Hints and Strategies on Teaching and Using Whole Body Listening
- Incorporate vocabulary into everyday activities and provide praise when you observe your child listening in an expected way (e.g., “thanks for waiting for me to finish my thought before answering me” or “I see that you are keeping your body still while your brother is telling his story”).
- Help your child practice mindfulness during various activities, including watching/looking, sitting, walking, and listening. Talk to your child about what it means to be mindful (paying attention with intention or on purpose). Help them attend to each body part involved with whole body listening and introduce a mindfulness activity that focuses on that body part (e.g., focus on mindful, still hands, listening to a specific sound, or practice a mindful, compassion activity). Point out examples of mindfulness and how it relates to listening. (Learn more about mindfulness at www.mindfulschools.org or greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition.)
- To support whole body listening, limit visual and auditory distractions near the speaker and listener.
- Use sensory supports. Some kids are better able to listen if they can keep their hands busy holding a fidget, doodling, squeezing hands together, or sitting on hands. Using a theraband around the legs of a chair, ankle weights, a pressure vest, or a lap pad can also make listening easier for some children.
- Last but not least, and one of the hardest for me these days, is to practice and model whole body listening ourselves. While my mom was discussing her concerns about the boys, I realized she might subtly be dropping a hint that I might also need to fine tune my listening skills in her presence as well. :)
Whole body listening is a useful tool for many kids (and adults) and can be adapted to a wide range of needs and abilities. The process of adapting it to suit your child can also provide a great opportunity to talk with the child about his or her learning style and encourage self-advocacy. Try any or all of the listening activities described above at home and find more activities to build social and emotional skills in my book Make Social Learning Stick!I’ll be working on them with my kids (and myself too), and I hope my mom will be happy with the results!
About the Author
Elizabeth Sautter is the co-director/owner of Communication Works. She is a licensed and certified speech-language pathologist who has been working with clients and their families since 1996. She is experienced in the areas of autism, developmental disabilities, social cognitive deficits, and challenging behaviors and since 2001, has focused most of her career on social cognitive and self-regulation intervention and training. To follow Elizabeth Sautter’s blog, sign up on her website.
Koegel, L., Matos-Fredeen, R., Lang, R. & Koegel, R. (2011). “Interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders in inclusive school settings”. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, doi:10.1016/j.cbpra.2010.11.003.
Sautter, E. (2016). “Taking a deeper look at whole body listening: It’s a tool not a rule”. www.socialthinking.com.
Sautter, E. (2014). Make social learning stick! Lenexa, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Sautter, E. and Wilson, K. (2011). Whole body listening Larry at school and Whole body listening Larry at home. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.
Truesdale, S.P. (2013). “Whole body listening updated.” Advance for Speech-Language Pathologists & Audiologists, Volume 23, No. 3, 8-10.
Truesdale, S.P. (1990). “Whole body listening: Developing active auditory skills”. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. Volume 21, July 1990, 183-184.
Winner, M.G. (2007). Social behavior mapping: Connecting behavior, emotions and consequences across the day. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.