Elizabeth Sautter, MA, CCC-SLP
Sarah Ward, MS, CCC-SLP
How many times have we, as parents and teachers, said to our children, “Pay attention!” or asked “Why aren’t you listening to me?” in a not-so-nice tone of voice. We give our children many directives, “Clean up the bathroom!”, “Get your backpack!”, “Put your homework in your bag!”, “It’s bedtime! Go get ready!” or “Don’t forget your …”. We assume our children know what we mean by those words and what to do. When they don’t respond, it can be incredibly frustrating.
When we say “Pay attention!” or “Put your homework in your bag!” we are not simply asking the child to do the explicit task but rather we are expecting them to use situational awareness to observe what is happening around them, ‘create a mental image’ of what the situation should look like in the future and finally compare the two images to understand the ‘why’ of the required action of the moment.
So when we said, “Pay attention!” we really meant:
[Situational Awareness]‘Please observe that right now all your friends in the cub scout troop are attending to our guest speaker’s lesson on how to tie knots and you need to listen to his words, watch his demonstration and respect your friends who are listening’ so that
[Memory for the Future] ‘when you go back to the work tables you will know how to tie the knots on your own and can use this skill for the upcoming pack trip’.
“Put your homework in your bag!” really meant:
[Situational Awareness] ‘Please notice that the assignment that you just spent the last 35 minutes working on and printed out, is still on the printer tray and the required notecards you made for the research are still on the table.’ so that
[Memory for the Future] ‘when you get into class tomorrow and Mrs. Smith asks for the notecards and the rough draft of your research paper you have it and do not lose points for not turning it in on time.’
In school, when children struggle to pay attention, they are thought of as “lazy”, “non-compliant” or having a “behavioral problem.” We expect children to learn how to focus, listen, and follow directions intuitively, using their “built in” social and self regulation skills. However, not all children acquire these skills automatically and it is our job to teach them.
When we think of a student who has difficulties with executive function we think of that child being disorganized. Executive functioning has become a real buzz word in schools and it’s important to know what is really causing that disorganization. Self regulation (self control) is the foundation of executive functioning and essential for listening and task execution. World renowned expert on attention deficit disorder, Dr. Russell Barkley, defines self regulation as an aspect of executive function skills involving three key components: 1) any action that allows the student to stop and direct themselves so as to 2) result in a change in their behavior in order to 3) change the likelihood of a future consequence or attainment of a goal.
So when we ask a student to listen and follow directions for task execution we are really asking them to momentarily stop (inhibit) their own actions and thoughts to consider the what, where and when of the desired future as well as why it is important. We are asking them to stop, listen, ‘read’ the situation and see/feel the future. This can be very difficult for children to learn and adults to teach.
In 1990, Susanne Poulette Truesdale created the concept of whole body listening which she describes in her article, “Whole-¬Body Listening: Developing Active Auditory Skills” (Language, Speech, and Hearing in Schools, Volume 21, 183-¬‐184, July 1990). A forward thinker, she astutely recognized that while we provide practice in listening, “do we teach students how to listen?” She noted that it entails more than hearing with our ears, “we also listen with our brain, eyes, mouth, hands, feet and even your seat!” Nita Everly, author of Can You Listen with Your Eyes, tailored the whole body listening concept to the preschool population and added the “heart” to the list of body parts that are needed to increase empathy and perspective taking.
Inspired by Truesdale and Everly, Elizabeth Sautter and Kristen Wilson created the character Whole Body Listening Larry and two children’s books (Whole Body Listening Larry at Home and Whole Body Listening Larry at School, 2011). Larry inspires preschool and early elementary school students to use their:
• eyes to look at the person talking
• ears to hear what is being said
• mouth by remaining quiet
• hands by keeping them by their side or in lap
• feet by placing them on the floor and keeping them still
• body by facing the speaker or sitting in chair
• brain to think about what the speaker is saying
• heart to care about what the speaker talks about
Larry also teaches children to increase their perspective taking skills by thinking about why these skills are important and how their behavior changes the thoughts and feelings of others.
To reduce frustration when asking students to listen and execute a direction, it is helpful to provide strategies such as whole body listening and creating a future image of what the end goal should look like.
Listening skills are foundational executive and self-regulation skills for children to posses in order to be successful in both academics and social situations. If students are able to attend and listen, they are more available to absorb academic and social content and be successful in managing tasks and social situations. Whole body listening is a concept to support this fundamental skill, as well as a powerful means to increase their executive function skills.
Note from Authors: To learn more about developing independent executive function skills, mark your calendars and attend Sarah Ward’s upcoming conference in the Bay Area on March 2nd. To register, visit:
Also, help us document Larry’s travels and support his mission of teaching children how to listen with their whole body. We are tracking Who’s Listening to Larry Now? by posting testimonials, stories, or activities to share on his Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/WholeBodyListeningLarry . Once we hear from you, we will pin your location on our Who’s Listening to Larry Now? map located at his home at Communication Works in Oakland, CA. Join the fun, we look forward to hearing from you!
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. Elizabeth has worked with individuals ranging from preschoolers to adults in private practice, schools, and hospitals.
Sarah Ward is the Co-Director of Cognitive Connections and has over 15 years of experience in diagnostic evaluations, treatment and case management of children, adolescents and adults with a wide range of developmental and acquired brain based learning difficulties and behavioral problems.
For more information, visit www.cwtherapy.com