Saturday, 26 February 2011

Hear hear!!

I was very concerned about the poor listening skills of children in primary schools so I decided to seek the views of colleagues in education. This was to reveiw an earlier study in the 1990s which I had been done with a colleague at the time, Sue Gowers. This is a brief report on the findings:

The Problem?
        189 Early Years Departments including Head Teachers, class Teaches, early years co-ordinators and special needs co-ordinators contributed their feelings. The 94% return rate for a questionnaire probably speaks for itself about the level of concern as typically, a response of around 32.5%
All of the schools were extremely worried: children generally have shorter attention span and most have difficulty listening. The problem is getting worse with children entering school ill-prepared for the demands of the classroom.
Many respondents blamed the constant blare of 24 hour TV with increased background noise causing children to switch off. Others felt that children’s senses were being over loaded with non-auditory stimulation. Most expressed a concern about the time children spend watching television & DVDs or playing computer type games. All felt that too much screen time including TV was partly to blame because children could just watch the pictures and didn’t need to listen.
On the whole respondents blamed parents for children’s poor attention and listening skills. Perhaps it’s the pressure of today’s busy lifestyle that necessitates leaving them in front of the TV as surrogate babysitter with little time set aside for conversation. 75% felt there were no social status differences.  Could it be that all families experience pressure but for different reasons? ‘Middle class’ parents are busy working to pay the mortgage, cars and holidays so they don’t have time to interact with their children, while others don’t realise they ought to?

As a result of poor attention and listening skills the class teacher has to begin by teaching them to listen. Unfortunately, it is assumed that children are equipped with the necessary abilities to learn but most school staff found that a great deal of time is taken up directing and re-focussing. In the 1970s it was felt that by the time a child arrived at school they had almost fully developed attention so that they could be drawing whilst listening to and understanding a completely separate instruction (Cooper, Moodley & Reynell 1978). These days the Teacher would have to ask them to put down their pencils, turn to the teacher, give the instruction and then tell them to continue the task.
As listening is a learned skill, children with learning difficulties will take longer than their peers to acquire it. Often extra work is needed for this group within the mainstream classroom. 
Probably as a result of poor auditory skills, there are many more speech and language problems in mainstream schools. Estimates vary but it is generally accepted that 7% of any class is likely to experience specific difficulty. Jean Gross Government Communication Tsar identified 1 in 6 3 year olds with identified difficulties but ‘many, many more’  with delays which hadn’t been picked up. Delays are almost becoming the norm. Bercow (2008) found up to 50% had communication difficulties which would impact on the children’s learning in school.

The Solution?
Ideally, one of the solutions is parental guidance when the children are younger which is why I set up Smart Talkers pre-school groups. One of the main aims is to show parents how to use ‘active listening’. We tend to think of listening as a passive skill but it actually an active learning task involving several aspects: good sitting, good looking, good waiting and good thinking. These were identified by Maggie Johnson who has done a great deal of work on this area including with children who have ADHD. Each part needs to be worked on in order. Realistically, however, the task of sorting the problem falls to the class teacher.
When working with children with short attention spans, learning activities have to be restructured so that only short periods of concentration are required with many different activities designed to retain interest and attention. Maggie has written ‘How to get them to hang on to your every word’ which has some great class room techniques for all ages. However, the following general strategies will be useful:

General Strategies

·        Ensure you have full attention and eye contact
·        Keep the instructions short & simple so that the key words are kept to a minimum
·        Speak as slowly, clearly and naturally as possible
·        Give the child time to understand/process the information/instruction. It may be necessary to repeat even simple instructions several times in order for the child to process the information
·        Check they have understood what is expected of them ‘Comprehension monitoring’
·        Try to develop the child overall confidence by praising him for things he is good at. Also try to make communication as pleasurable an experience as possible. When a child is nervous or anxious the ability to understand may be adversely affected
·        Keep external distractions to a minimum whist giving instructions
·        Use gesture and other non-verbal cues whenever possible e.g. facial expression pointing etc
·        Use visual clues and cues e.g. pictures of the tasks, picture timetable


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