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How to Get a 3 or 4 Year Old to Listen to You

Little girl talking to her mom.jpg

Keys to improving your 3 or 4-year-olds willingness to listen to you:

  • Encourage a healthy relationship so children like being with you and want to listen to you

  • Read to children regularly so spoken language  is understood, offers knowledge & enjoyment

  • Cooking, gardening, building things, playing cooperative games all provide excellent opportunities for talking & listening.


  • Talk to your kids about what interests them


  • Look at what's in it for them when they listen

  • Provide predictable routines & expectations which support listening & cooperation

  • Model being a good listener. Get on your child's level whenever possible. Look into their eyes when you speak with them

  • Making requests affirmative, short & age appropriate tells your child what you want. e.g. 'Inside voice please' rather than 'stop running around the house and screaming'

  • If your child is engaged in play use a cue to encourage listening. e.g. a song, music, action to transition to another activity

  • Good listening is based upon respect. To gain respect, be respectful

At the beginning of a new pre school year, how did I get a group of 25 three and four-year-olds, to stop what they were doing and listen to me, especially when some did not listen to their own parents?


I began by looking at listening from a child's perspective.

Something you may not have considered... Could listening to you, feel like a negative for a 3 or 4 year-old-child?

1. Could your 3 or 4-year-old feel punished for listening. e.g. Your child is happily playing. But when you talk, you interrupt their game & expect them to pack up. Therefore, listening to you stops their fun and gives them a job. If they don't care about wanting to please you, listening to you can be negative for them.


Is there a better way to encourage cooperation, so listening to you can be interesting & fun for your child? Perhaps using rewards when your child uses good listening skills may help encourage better listening behaviour. A reward could be specific praise, an interesting conversation, time spent with them doing something they'd like, a story, a game. What could motivate your child to want to listen?

Taking Care of the Kids
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Anchor 2

Chatting with 3 and 4 year olds helps them understand how dialogue works.

I talk: you listen.

You talk: I listen.

We take turns talking and listening.

Daily reading helps improve your child's vocabulary, comprehension, concentration & overall listening ability.

​2. When I talk with 3 or 4 year olds I praise the specific listening skills they're using.

e.g. I love:

  • the way you look at my face when I speak to you

  • your steady hands & feet... That's respectful when someone's talking to you. Thank you.

  • you're thinking about what I'm saying. Well done!

  • that you remember what I've asked you to do. Great listening.

3. Because kids are often deeply involved in their activities I often start singing, or use music or instruments to inform 3 or 4-year-olds their activity will soon be coming to a close. 


Imagine if you started clicking your fingers  in a rhythm Click, click, click, click. And saying. I think I'm gonna have fun today. Click, click, click, click. Then add a clap instead. I know I'm gonna have fun today. Smile big. Clap, clap, clap, clap. By then it's likely your child is looking at you... Are-you ready to have some fun today? Ham it up a bit. Keep clapping begin to dance. It's likely they're listening to see what's going to happen. If you have to pack up, make it a game. I wonder if we can dance pack up and beat the timer today? Yeh! Play some fast music for pack away. Then give an instant reward for cooperating so they learn listening works.

Is there currently a pay off for not listening?


For example: If your 3 or 4-year-old ignores you, they don't pack up. They get to play longer... And if they get away with this, they're more likely to ignore you in the future because they've learnt ignoring you works. Most kids will at least try this because their pay off is a good one.

So what do you do?


Discussing expectations ahead of time, including play finishing-times, often helps. And if kids aren't willing to pack up (or it's difficult for them to pack up,) they may initially need to play with less toys.  If they want a more complex range, that can be a privilege they can earn over time... by following directions.

Child playing with colorful toy blocks.

Something to Consider

How would you feel if you've just accomplished making something special and your parent asks you to destroy it & pack it away?

Could taking a photo of a 3 or 4 year olds accomplishment help them feel better about packing up. Or leaving just the building up to show a parent later in the day.


Being respectful encourages respect in return.

4. I comment on any positive listening skills 3 or 4 year olds exhibit before easing them into transitioning to another activity.

e.g. I love that as soon as I started to speak you stopped what you were doing, you looked at my face and stood still. Great listening. Do you need to put your thinking cap on so you can remember what I said to you? Let's put it on... I'm going to use my whispering voice today. Can you come closer and hear what I'm saying...

Beautiful little girl with backpack walk

5. I sometimes use made up songs, or chants, to provide directives.


e.g. ' I need all the children to come to me. Come to me. I need your company. I need all the children to come to me. It's time to play the pack away game.' And I praised them when they came to me.


6. If I want 3 or 4 year olds to remember instructions like packing their own bags I create a chant with the items I want them to remember.


e.g. Get your hand towel, your lunch box, your hat and your bag. Get your hand towel, your lunch box, your hat and your bag. Get your hand towel, your lunch box, your hat and your bag. It's almost time for story...


If there's no opportunity to do this I might ask them to repeat my instructions. Then I would praise the things they remembered. (Refer to Early Language Supports Listening below on how to  develop overall listening & language skills.)

7. Reinforcing routine expectations with a visual list for transitions to the next activity is really useful, especially for early morning routines.


Kid Eating Meal

9. I always use a quiet, calm voice when I speak to children. Quiet voices encourage listening.


If they were misbehaving I tell them what I need them to do differently. If required I repeat instructions again but lower my tone. If they don't follow directions I discuss introducing natural consequences and I follow through so they learn I mean what I say.

10. I set up predictable routines. Then children learn what to expect & how best to cooperate.

8. I use a countdown clap to encourage children to complete tasks quickly. I began with I wonder if you can beat our countdown clap. Get ready. Get Set. Go...

Five clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap

Four clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap

Three clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap

Two clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap

One clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap

Then I target the listening skills I'm looking for: Looking at my face, having steady hands and body: Jenny is sitting with her hands steady ready to listen. Benny has his bag packed and his eyes are looking at me. Well done Jack, you were fast today.  And that's lucky because today I've got something special to show/tell you... And have something interesting to show or say so there's a pay off for listening.

You're the leader of your family. Children will copy what you do. If you listen to others, they're more likely to listen to you. Children will behave as you'll allow them to behave.


If you're smart you'll make parenting easier for yourself by making listening to you a positive experience... Then your kids are more likely to cooperate because they know you'll notice and appreciate it... and them.

I know these strategies may feel a bit awkward at first. But they're fun for 3 or 4-year-olds. And I found they worked with most children most of the time (even those diagnosed  with significant behavioural disorders.)


You could trial them, find what works then use them consistently. Why these strategies work is because over time they train 3 and 4-year-olds to listen & cooperate. As kids mature, they need less 'props' to support cooperative behaviour.


Something to consider: Good listening supports good communication... And good communication supports good relationships.


For specific information on improving behaviour go to the following links:

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Best parenting takes time. The best parenting advice ever is simple: Do your best, don't give up and love your children, no matter what.

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