It’s not unusual for kids to tune out their parents or teachers once in a while. But if you have to keep repeating instructions and your child still doesn’t get them, it could be a sign of a listening comprehension issue. Auditory processing disorder (APD) is a common cause of these problems, but there are others. Learn more about listening comprehension issues and how you can help.
What You Might Be Seeing
Kids with listening comprehension issues don’t have hearing problems. The trouble lies with how their brain processes the sounds they hear. The signs can look different depending on what’s causing them and how old the child is. A preschooler may have a hard time learning songs or nursery rhymes. A middle-schooler may struggle to follow conversations.
If your child has issues with listening comprehension you may hear “Huh?” or “What?” more than most parents. If she doesn’t do what you asked her to, it may be because she can’t remember what you said. Or she may just not be able follow up on it. Kids with listening issues can also be easily distracted. This can cause trouble with learning.
Here are some common signs of listening comprehension issues:
- Has trouble following spoken directions, especially if they’re more than one step
- Often asks speakers to repeat what they’ve said
- Is easily distracted, especially by background noise or loud and sudden noises
- Has trouble with reading and spelling, which involve understanding sounds
- Has difficulty with oral (word) math problems
- Has trouble following conversations;
- Has poor musical ability
- Has difficulty learning songs or nursery rhymes
- Has trouble remembering details of what was read or heard
What Can Cause Listening Comprehension Issues
A common cause of listening comprehension issues is auditory processing disorder. But there are other learning and attention issues that also can make it hard to understand what people are saying. Learn more about the conditions that can cause issues with listening.
Auditory processing disorder: Kids who have this brain-based condition don’t always hear subtle differences in sounds. If they’re someplace with a lot of background noise, including classrooms, the challenge can be even greater. Kids with APD often ask teachers to repeat instructions. This can make it seem as if they’re not paying attention.
While APD is mainly a listening issue, it can also affect speech. Some kids may not speak clearly, dropping word endings and syllables that aren’t emphasized. APD is not something kids outgrow. But there are strategies and techniques that can help build listening skills both at home and at school.
There are other conditions besides APD that can make it hard for a child to follow what people are saying. While some of the symptoms may be similar, the reasons for them are different. Here’s what else might be causing your child’s listening comprehension issues:
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): This brain-based condition is a common suspect when a child can’t seem to listen. ADHD makes it hard to focus and control impulses. Some kids also have hyperactivity as a symptom and are constantly moving. Kids with ADHD can appear to be tuned out.
The truth is that kids with ADHD are often listening, but not understanding what they hear. They may understand facts, but not things that aren’t spelled out. Many kids with attention issues also have poor working memory skills. That makes it hard to hold on to what people say long enough to do something with the information.
Kids with ADHD can have other challenges that get in the way of making conversation. These include difficulty with taking turns or holding on to a train of thought. To the person on the other end, it may seem as if they’re just not listening.
Social (pragmatic) communication disorder (SCD): This is a newly defined condition that used to be known as pragmatic language impairment and semantic pragmatic disorder. Kids with SCD often interrupt people and don’t listen when they’re talking. But it’s not because they’re being rude. It’s because they have trouble with the social rules of language.
Kids with SCD may have trouble understanding what people are saying. That’s especially true if they have to figure out the context or tone. They may also not know how to start a conversation or keep one going.
Dyslexia: This learning issue mainly causes problems with reading. Children with dyslexia may mix up the order of letters and skip over small words while reading. But there’s a link between dyslexia and auditory weaknesses. That combination can cause listening comprehension issues in some kids.
How You Can Get Answers
As a parent, you may be the first to notice your child’s listening comprehension issues. Even if your child’s teacher or doctor tells you there’s no need to worry, it’s a good idea to get an evaluation. Early treatment may keep your child from having long-term learning and social struggles. Here are some steps you can take to find out what’s causing your child’s listening issues.
- Talk to your child’s teacher. Comparing notes with the teacher about what you’re seeing is a great way to start. You may gain valuable insight to share with professionals. And the teacher may be able to try strategies in the classroom to make it easier for your child to listen and understand.
- Look into an educational evaluation. If you suspect a listening comprehension issue is behind your child’s troubles, you or your child’s teacher can ask the school to do an educational evaluation. (The school can’t do it without your permission.) If the school agrees, there won’t be any charge. Depending on the results, your child may be able to get supports and services to meet her needs. The school would commit to providing these services through a 504 plan or an IEP.
- Talk with your child’s doctor. You can also start getting answers by talking with your child’s doctor. It’s the first step toward ruling out (or in) any medical problems that could be causing your child’s listening issues. The doctor may check your child’s hearing or ask questions about her focus. You may also be referred to a specialist for more testing.
- Talk to a specialist. To test for hearing issues, you may be referred to an audiologist. This specialist can also help evaluate your child for APD. A speech-language pathologist can evaluate your child for SCD. Some pediatricians will evaluate kids for ADHD. But your child’s doctor may refer you to a psychologist or neurologist instead.
If your child is under age 3, you can contact your state’s early intervention system. You may be able to get a free evaluation without a referral.
What You Can Do Now
Even if you don’t know what is causing your child’s issues with listening comprehension, there are ways you can help her improve her skills. And you can also take steps to make the journey easier for both of you. Here are some suggestions.
- Learn as much as you can. Understanding what’s causing your child’s listening comprehension can help you get the right support. And knowing that your child isn’t ignoring you on purpose can help you to be more patient and supportive
- Observe and take notes. By watching your child you may notice patterns in when she can and can’t understand what people are saying. This can help you can make changes at home and try strategies to improve her listening comprehension. Taking notes will also be helpful when you’re talking to your child’s doctor, teachers and specialists
- Keep it quiet. Turn off the TV. Have your child look at you when you’re speaking. Don’t try to have a significant conversation when there’s background noise.
- Work with the professionals. Your child’s speech-language therapist or special education teacher may have ideas for how you can support her therapy at home. There may be exercises or games you could play to reinforce skills.
- Connect with other parents. Finding other families who are dealing with similar issues can provide a lot of support and helpful ideas.
Your child’s issues with listening comprehension won’t disappear. But her ability to handle the challenges can grow. You can help her improve her self-esteem and develop the skills she needs to succeed.