How many times a day do you find yourself saying such things as “listen carefully” or “pay attention”? It is these requests that we give our students on a daily basis. However, many times we have yet to actually stop and explain to the child our expectations to these requests. When a student doesn’t follow our expectations we often feel frustrated or annoyed and assume they aren’t being a good listener when in reality they may not know you want them to stop fidgeting with their hands, or to make more eye contact to show with their body that they are actively listening. We have to teach whole body listening.
Instead of becoming annoyed or frustrated when our students don’t actively listen with their whole bodies we need to explicitly describe how to listen with their whole body.
Listening to others is an important part of social communication. In addition, it is an essential skill when it comes to academic success and your ability to work in a group. This skill is so important in fact that the Common Core Standards have specific goals focusing on listening.
What is Whole Body Listening?
Back in 1990, a speech-language pathologist by the name of Susanne Poulette Truesdale came up with the concept of “whole body listening”. Susanne helped to break down the abstract concept of listening by explaining the body parts and their explicit involvement in listening.
Whole Body Listening consists of more than just listening with our ears but instead, it includes all of the following:
- Eyes: We use our eyes to look at the person speaking to show them that we are listening to them.
- Ears: We use our ears to hear the sound or speech of others.
- Brain: We use our brain to distinguish and understand the sound and speech we hear.
- Mouth: In order to listen we need to have a quiet mouth.
- Heart: We should use our heart to listen to others to show empathy and take another person’s perspective.
- Hands: We should have quiet hands to show we are listening to others.
- Feet: We should have quiet feet to show we are listening to others.
Kids are Doing the Best they Can
Most of the time children are doing the best they can with what they have learned previously. Some kids appear as though they have behavior problems when in reality they have not learned how to listen, focus for a period of time, or follow directions. It is believed that social skills are known intuitively. However, some children require to be taught these skills while social skills can come more naturally to others.
According to a psychologist, Dr. Ross Greene, who is an expert with children who exhibit challenging behaviors says, that you should ask yourself, “Does the child have the skills needed to perform the task?” Children are often doing the best that they can in a given situation. As the teacher or parent, it is our job to support these children by providing them with the skills or accommodations to do well socially. How to listen may need to be broken down and taught in a way that makes sense to your students.
Why Can Listening be Such a Hard Skill to Learn?
When you give your students a direct request such as, “put your backpack in your cubby” or “push in your chairs”. Your child can picture in their minds exactly what you want them to do. However, give them a less concrete direction such as, “listen” or “pay attention” and this idea is more abstract and challenging to visualize. In addition, listening or paying attention can mean very different things in different contexts or situations. For example, listening at church might mean looking at the preacher, having calm hands and feet, and having a quiet mouth. While listening on the swing set might mean looking at the sky, swinging your feet, and laughing at what your friend is saying. In order to have this level of awareness, your child will require social awareness and the ability to take another’s perspective.
An additional layer is that one person’s request to listen may be different than another person’s request to listen. For example, when the music teacher tells the students to listen she expects them to look at her, but is okay if their hands and feet are fidgetting while their math teacher expects them to stop what they are doing, look at her, and not be doing anything with their hands or feet while she is talking. That’s why it is important to tell students “how” you expect them to listen. Tell them what listening should look like. For example, “I am going to review the math test and need you to listen, listening is when your eyes are on the speaker, your body is facing the board, your hands are in your lap or on your desk, but not drawing. This will help your students know exactly what “listening” should look like in that given situation with that given teacher or adult.
How to Support Whole Body Listening
- Ears: It is important to reduce any auditory distractions. Try using an amplifier (e.g., frequency modulation (FM) system). Some kiddos might benefit from using noise-reducing headphones.
- Eyes: Encourage your students to look toward the speaker, and to watch their facial expressions to help interpret the speaker’s emotions. Keep in mind: Some students struggle with making direct eye contact and can still listen without direct eye contact.
- Mouth: Remind your students to have a quiet mouth while others are speaking and to be sure to think before they speak. Keep in mind: Some kiddos make verbal sounds to help them regulate their bodies. Try to remind them to use a quiet voice and try to encourage them to use other means to help them regulate, such as using an age-appropriate fidget.
- Hands: Tell your students to have quiet hands. Try using a fidget or have them put their hands in their lap or pockets. Keep in mind: Some students flap their hands to help them regulate. Try to encourage them to use a fidget.
- Feet: Encourage your students to have quiet feet. Try using different seating options that might help some students, for example sitting on a therapy ball. Keep in mind: There are some students who need to move to help them stay regulated. Maybe find a place in your room where they can move without distracting others.
- Heart: Teaching your students to use their heart when they listen helps to encourage them to try and take others’ perspectives which can be a difficult task.
Help Advocate for Your Students
Some of your students will have a difficult time being able to exhibit all of the whole body listening expectations. For example, a student with autism may struggle with eye contact or hand flapping. It is important to advocate for your students who might not be able to do all of the whole body listening skills.
As you continue to work with your students be sure to tell the adults and teachers in your student’s life what your student is able to do independently and what you are working on with them and how they can help your student while they continue to become an even better whole body listener.
Whole Body Listening Video
Introduce the topic for the day with this fun video. I usually have my students watch this video first and then have them try and guess what the topic of discussion will be for the day.
Scavenger Hunt Listening Activity
Have a little fun while you practice whole body listening! My kiddos love this activity. You can use it on multiple occasions and in different settings. Have your students go on a scavenger hunt and listen for different sounds.
Be sure to note:
- The sound: Have your students describe the sound they hear using descriptive words, such as crinkling.
- The body parts: Have your students identify which body parts they used to hear the sound. This helps your students to become more aware of how they can listen. Such as using their eyes.
- What is the sound? Lastly, have your students identify the item that is creating the sound.
What Body Parts do you Use to be a Good Listener
Have your students discuss what body parts they need in order to be a good listener. Have them label all 7 of the body parts onto the child. For fun have your student add some color and hang in the classroom to refer to at a later date. This activity comes in two versions one a blank boy version and one a blank girl version.
The 7 body parts for listening:
- Eyes, 2. Ears, 3. Brain, 4. Mouth, 5. Heart, 6. Hands, 7. Feet
Identify the Job of each Body Part when Listening
Have a discussion with your students and identify how to use each body part in order to be a good listener. Be sure to fill in the blanks using the word box at the bottom of the page.
Have fun and add a little color to your picture!
This activity also comes in two versions. One boy version and one girl version.
Whole Body Listening: Group Activity
Now comes the fun part! Divide your kiddos up into small groups then have them work together to create a poster about how to be a good listener.
This is a fun activity to have your students practice listening to their group members and create a poster together.
Directions to build a poster:
- Divide your students up into small groups.
- Have a student grab a piece of butcher paper. Make sure to have them precut to the size of a person.
- Then have one student lay down on the butcher paper and then have another student trace their classmate.
- Next, have the group label and draw the 7 body parts needed to be a good listener onto the butcher paper.
- Then have your students write a short description of the importance of each body part and how it is used to be a good listener.
- Lastly, add some color!
Listening to others is an important part of social communication and an essential skill when it comes to a student’s academic success. Kids are often doing the best they can with what they know. Instead of becoming annoyed when your students are not listening try explicitly teaching them how to listen with their whole bodies. Teach your students how to listen with their whole body using their eyes, ears, brain, mouth, heart, hands, and feet.
Want more? Check out these additional resources to help you teach whole body listening.
These books are about two siblings, Leah and Luka, who struggle to focus not only their bodies but also their brains. It shows the simple teachings provided by their friend, Larry. Larry teaches them how to use their whole bodies to listen.
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Kuypers, L. (2011). The Zones of Regulation: A curriculum designed to foster self-regulation and emotional control. 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. Available online at: http://speech-language-pathology-audiology.advanceweb.com/Features/Articles/Whole-Body-Listening-Updated.aspx
Truesdale, S.P. (1990). “Whole-Body Listening: Developing Active Auditory Skills.” Language, Speech, and Hearing in Schools, Volume 21, 183-¬‐184.
Available via Eric: http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ415022 or on the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) website: http://lshss.pubs.asha.org/article.aspx?articleid=1777894&resultClick=1
Sautter, E., & Wilson, K. (2011). Whole body listening Larry at school! San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.
Wilson, K., & Sautter, E. (2011). Whole body listening Larry at home! San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.