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Why some kids don’t listen

By Bob Cunningham, EdM

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It can be really frustrating when kids don’t seem to listen when you ask them a question or give them an instruction. You might wonder if there’s a problem or if they’re ignoring you on purpose. 

A lot depends on age. When kids are little, they often don’t seem to be listening. They may be wrapped up in a game they’re playing. Or they may hear you but not look at you, so you don’t realize they are listening. 

As kids get older, they typically learn a simple social rule — when someone is talking, you stop and look at the person, so the person knows you’re listening. 

Sometimes, though, it becomes obvious that a child doesn’t listen very well. What could be causing that? It’s possible the child has a hearing problem, and that’s the first thing to check out. But there are other reasons kids have a hard time listening.

Two common cases are trouble with language or trouble with following directions. Focus challenges can also play a role. 

No matter what’s causing the difficulty, it’s important to know that kids don’t mean to be disrespectful. They just need help building the skills they need for listening.  

Dive deeper

What causes trouble following directions

Kids need many skills to follow directions. They need to be able to focus, listen, and follow through on information. Kids can have trouble following directions when they have weaknesses in these areas.

For example, some kids may have trouble with language . They might process information slower than others and need more time to make sense of what you’re saying.

Kids might have trouble remembering information long enough to act on it. Or they might have focus challenges . These skills are part of what’s known as executive function.

Learn more about the important executive functioning skills .

Language challenges at home and at school

Some kids have trouble understanding the meaning of what people say. But it can be hard to recognize when that’s the cause of listening problems. 

If you observe the behavior closely, you may start to see patterns. That can help you find strategies to make listening easier.

See what trouble understanding language looks like .

Next steps

If you’re concerned about a hearing problem, consider an evaluation by a hearing specialist. Pediatricians can be good resources for finding the right professional.  

Parents and teachers should connect and work together to find answers and solutions. One option might be an evaluation at school that includes language testing. An evaluation can lead to supports in school.

Learn more about evaluations at school .

Related topics

Focus and attention Focus and attention Following instructions Following instructions Root causes Root causes Talking and understanding Talking and understanding

Did you know?

Paying attention is more complicated than people realize. Telling people who struggle with it to “just focus” is like asking someone who’s nearsighted to just see farther.

More on: Focus and attention

When you give instructions, each step should be clear, simple, and specific. “Put the frozen food in the freezer first” is more helpful than “Put away the groceries.”

More on: Following instructions

Kids with ADHD are much more likely to have a learning disability than kids who don’t have ADHD. They’re also more likely to have anxiety or depression.

More on: Root causes

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