Second Step® Insights

5 Strategies to Help Students Become Active Listeners

July 10, 2024 | By: The Second Step® Team

“Listen twice as much as you speak” is especially useful advice in classroom settings. But the act of listening alone doesn’t guarantee thoughtful outcomes. How kids listen matters. Listening for a gap to interject their opinion or to find holes in someone’s argument probably isn’t what Greek philosopher Epictetus had in mind when he said that famous line centuries ago: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

Epictetus probably meant what we call listening with intent—listening to really understand another person’s perspective and feelings. Listening with intent requires important social-emotional skills like perspective-taking and empathy along with focus and attention. Learning how to listen to understand and respond thoughtfully takes practice. You can try these five strategies to help kids learn what listening and speaking with intent looks like and how to practice it in conversations.

1. Model active listening

One of the best ways to teach kids how to listen with intent is to model active listening in your classroom. Each interaction is an opportunity to show kids what good listening looks like. Through your nonverbal and verbal responses, they’ll understand what it feels like to be heard and understood. Kids learn by watching adults around them. Your actions will become the norm.

2. Use the “wait time” exercise

Most teachers are already familiar with and use the “wait time” technique. This method of pausing for a few seconds before responding or calling on students for answers gives kids a moment to think about what they heard or what they want to say. Encourage students to use wait time in their own conversations. Not only can this help kids think more deeply about what the other person said, but it also gives the listener a moment to consider their response. Making wait time part of conversations can also reduce interruptions or responding without hearing the person’s full thought.

3. Paraphrase what was said

Paraphrasing can help both parties establish a common understanding of the issue they’re discussing. Practicing paraphrasing in class helps students see the many different ways words and ideas can be interpreted and how the meaning can change each time the message is relayed. Practicing paraphrasing encourages students to pay close attention and sharpens their listening retention skills. It also helps students learn how easily misunderstandings can arise.

4. Look for other communication clues

Communication is about more than just words. Tone of voice and body language convey meaning too. Listening with intent involves noticing the nonverbal language that helps inform what the speaker is feeling. For example, if a fellow student is trying to make their point with arms crossed and a strained voice, they’re likely upset, even if they’re not saying so. By tapping into empathy, the listener can respond appropriately, understanding the speaker may be upset.

5. Engage in listening circles

This interactive practice involves students sitting in a circle and taking turns speaking and listening. This exercise teaches students to be patient and to wait for their turn to speak. It also teaches active listening, paraphrasing, perspective-taking, and empathy skills. Educators can even use listening circles to resolve class conflict, a time when listening may be most challenging.

Listening with intent requires perspective-taking, empathy, and focused effort to understand another person’s viewpoint and feelings. By modeling active listening skills and practicing listening strategies in class, educators can help kids become better communicators at school, at home, and throughout their lives.

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