Teaching Children The Skills For Whole Body Listening

By Elizabeth Sautter  M.A. 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 assume our children understand how to listen and what we mean by those words. When they don’t respond, it can be incredibly frustrating.

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 sense we assume all children possess. However, not all children acquire social skills and self-regulation intuitively. Parents and teachers need to take a step back and look at it through a different lens. Dr. Ross Greene, psychologist and expert in working with kids with challenging behavior, suggests that we ask ourselves,  “Does the child have the skills needed to perform the task?” He states it perfectly-“Kids do well if they can.” Greene believes that it is our job to figure out the lagging skills of our children in order to help them do well. Many, especially those with social learning, sensory processing or attention challenges, may not have the skills needed to understand that listening is more than a function of hearing with your ears. It involves the brain and body and a host of social cognitive and sensory processing skills that may need to be concretely taught for this concept to make sense. If a child continuously struggles to pay attention, they probably do not have the skills to do so. It is then our job, as parents and teachers, to help them learn these skills.

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, a speech language pathologist and author of Can You Listen with Your Eyes, tailored the whole body listening concept to the preschool population. She added the “heart” to the list of body parts that are needed to increase empathy and perspective taking. Everly stated, “By breaking down the abstract concept of ‘listening’ into concrete parts, children are able to understand what is involved in this complex skill and have a better chance of success in this area.”

Whole body listening has been adopted into the Social Thinking ® curriculum by Michelle G. Winner and is often used to teach the fundamentals of how and why we listen to others both one on one and in a group. It is an excellent strategy for helping our children learn what is expected of them and how to keep others feeling comfortable around them.

Inspired by Truesdale and Everly, Kristen Wilson (SLP) created Whole Body Listening Larry, a child‐friendly character during social learning therapy sessions at Communication Works in Oakland, CA. “Larry,” who was named by the students, began his life as a cartoon drawing on a wooden tongue depressor. The children responded well to the childlike character who reminded them how to improve their listening skills. There seemed to be something about Larry that made him less intimidating and easier to relate to than adults. Larry was adopted by the other therapists at the center and became the inspiration for many lessons.

Larry taught children how to expand on Truesdale’s original concept in an engaging manner, teaching preschool and young 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 helped the children draw posters and signs to show how to listen with their whole body.  They practiced activities and games with Larry as their coach and had fun learning the importance of improving these skills.

Larry also taught them 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. The children loved this character who taught them how to be a more effective listener! This was a “light bulb” moment for Elizabeth Sautter (director/owner and SLP at Communication Works) for expanding Larry into a broader visual teaching and literature tool for other parents and professionals to use with their children. In 2011, the two books, Whole Body Listening Larry at Home and Whole Body Listening Larry at School by Wilson and Sautter were published by Social Thinking Publishing (San Jose, CA).

Since 2011, Larry has traveled to many homes and schools to help children learn how to listen with their whole body.  Teachers and parents have reported that he has provided them with a simple way to talk about and teach listening skills.  This is an essential, foundational skill 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 content and be successful in school. Whole body listening is a concept to support this fundamental skill, as well as a powerful means to increase their social competence.

In response to the enthusiasm, we have started a project to document Larry’s travels and support his mission in reaching and teaching as many children as possible.  This includes gathering and sharing activities and lessons to use with children. Please help us track Who’s Listening to Larry Now? by posting testimonials, stories, or activities to share with others on his Facebook page. 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 us:  www.facebook.com/WholeBodyListeningLarry

We look forward to hearing from you!

To purchase Whole Body Listening Larry book at Home  and Whole Body Listening Larry at School visit: www.socialthinking.com.



Read Truesdale’s original article via Eric: www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/recordDetail?accno=EJ415022 or on the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) website: http://lshss.asha.org/cgi/content/citation/21/3/183

Dr. Ross Greene: www.livesinthebalance.org/

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