5 Reasons Young Children Don’t Listen

by | Oct 17, 2019 | Challenging Behavior, Developmental Delays, Tools for Mothers

One of the most common problems moms experience – or that they hear from their child’s teacher – is that their child “doesn’t listen.”   Usually this doesn’t mean that their child doesn’t “hear” what’s going on in the classroom, or what their friend just said to them.  Usually it means that

  • they’re not following directions during activities
  • they’re not sitting quietly and attending at Circle or Large Group time
  • they’re not doing what you just asked them to do, even though they “know how to”

Adults often take this behavior (or non-behavior) to mean that the child for some reason “won’t” do what is being asked of them.  If they “won’t” do something that means the child is being disrespectful, obstinate, naughty or worse.  If you look at a behavior in that light, then what you experience is conflict.  You want something (your child to get ready for school, for example) and your child is refusing.

You might instead look at your child’s not doing something as a puzzle: you can be curious and ask,

Why is my child not doing what is being asked of him/her?

When you wonder and ask a question instead, you remove conflict and replace it with curiosity and investigation.  That feels much better, and is more likely to result in finding a solution where both you and your child are on the same side.

Here are 5 reasons your young child might not be ‘listening’

#1.  Your child may not understand what is being asked of him or her

Many 2- and 3-year olds aren’t able to carry out multi-step directions (“go upstairs, get your school shoes and backpack and meet me at the door”).  They may get parts of the instruction and not others (backpack, but not shoes.  Or they might give up altogether and just start playing with a toy when they get to their room.  A child may be listening, but not ‘get’ all of the instructions.

If your child has developmental delays they may be unable to complete the task you’ve set them.  A child might refuse to put on a jacket that’s too difficult for them to manage, because they haven’t yet mastered that self-help skill.  Another child might ‘bother’ the other children at Circle, attempting to play when the teacher is reading a story, because he or she doesn’t understand the words or concepts in the book – they might have a language delay.  (how enjoyable would it be for you to listen to a teacher lecture on calculus? For me, not enjoyable at all, since I definitely have delays in my math skills).

#2.  What is being asked may not be developmentally appropriate

Young children are often expected to do things they’re not developmentally ready to do. Asking a young 3-year-old to share his favorite toys with another child is asking for trouble.  If he or she is able to share or take turns at all, it will probably be with a lot of help from an adult (usually you). Similarly, it’s not reasonable to leave a group of 3- or 4-year-olds on their own to play without expecting tears and shouting at some point.  They’re still learning how to share and negotiate.

Asking a young 3-year-old to sit quietly at a Large Group activity for 20+ minutes is not reasonable.  I knew a wonderful preschool teacher: creative, funny, and bright, who expected her 3-year-old class to sit for 30 minute Circles.  Past 15 minutes some of the children would start wiggling and bumping their neighbors, and by the 30 minute mark the entire group was ready to explode – except for those who had abandoned Circle long before and were now playing in centers.

#3. Your child may be unable to do what they’re being asked to do

Even if what is being asked of a child is generally ‘reasonable,’ particular children may not have mastered all of the skills most of their peers have.  There is a wide range of what is ‘typical’ skill development when you’re talking about young children.  Also, children may have mastered skills in some areas, but not others.  They may have great gross motor skills, but not as developed fine motor skills, so a child might avoid a worksheet practicing letters of the alphabet because it’s more difficult for him than riding a trike or arguing his case when he wants something.

Sometimes peer pressure leads moms to ask children to do things they’re not ready for.  When my daughter turned 3 a friend and I placed our daughters in a gymnastics class through the local parks and rec department.  The girls looked so cute in their pink leotards!  I sat with her to watch the class, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that while her daughter was ready to stand in line and wait for her turn to do a somersault, mine was definitely not.  Rather than stand and wait, she preferred to stay on the sidelines and practice her own moves.  She never did get a turn, because she was never in line!  Even though she told me after class that “it wasn’t fun,” I didn’t want to quit and feel embarrassed in front of my friend.  We (or rather I) persevered for a couple more weeks, but it was clear that my daughter was not ready for this kind of class, even though many children her age were.

#4.  Listening doesn’t equal compliance

As adults we’re bigger, older and wiser than our little ones.  We have important things to do (go to work, get dinner ready, pay bills, call grandma, do errands). So When we instruct a young child to do something we often expect them to do it immediately.  If they don’t, we may assume they’re not listening, otherwise they’d just do it.

Unfortunately, sometimes even when children hear the words, they may have a myriad of reasons not to comply immediately.

  • they’re engrossed in a video or game and truly didn’t hear you (did they look up at you when you spoke?)
  • they intend to do what you’re asking, just not this minute – after their TV show, perhaps?
  • they may find what you’re asking to be unpleasant (getting ready for bed, going to daycare, going to the doctor, etc.)

There are a hundred reasons (at least) why your child might not jump to do what you’re asking.  If you treat noncompliance as a puzzle to solve, you can start figuring out the why of it.  Then you can start to figure out a solution.

#5.  Your child may see your request as their choice, and choose NOT to do it

As moms we teach our children courtesy and politeness.  We don’t want to seem too overbearing and dictatorial (like our moms might have been!).  So we ask nicely for our child’s cooperation.  However, if you’re not clear with your child that what you’re asking is not a choice, they are likely to think they do have a choice.

You might find yourself saying something like the following questions, while your child says or thinks his choice.

  • It’s bed time.  Do you want to get ready for bed now? (not really, no)
  • Do you want to make Mommy late?  Can you get your shoes on please?  (nope)
  • It’s dinner time – do you want to have some?  (no thanks, I’m busy playing)

There are many times when we give our children choices.  Learning to make choices is an important skill.  However, there are other times when there is no choice.  If you’re going to be late for work if your child doesn’t get dressed, then getting dressed is not a choice.  If it’s bedtime, then getting in bed is not a choice.  If you want to give a choice it can be part of your directive.

  • It’s time for bed.  Do you want to read (Story #1) or (Story #2)?
  • It’s dinner time.  Do you want the blue plate or the red one?
  • It’s time to get in the car.  What song shall we listen to in the car first?

There are many reasons your child is not listening.

You can avoid a lot of frustration if you observe your child and act like a detective when he or she is not ‘listening.’

  • In what situations does your child not listen?
  • Are there some people he listens to more often?  Why do you suppose that is?
  • Do you suspect he may need some help in learning a skill?  Or do you need guidance in how to teach a skill?

Does your child sometimes not ‘listen?’

How do you manage those times?

Leave a comment below and share!  If you have questions about a particular situation you’re experiencing we can brainstorm some reasons and possible solutions.

I wish you well,


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