Learning and development, Physical activity, Psychology

Whole Body Listening

How to Listen

One of the biggest milestones that most people experience is getting their driver’s license. The excitement of being on the open road independently takes lots of preparation and requires many steps to accomplish. Listening with your whole body can also be very exciting and requires practice and explanation in order for students to truly understand what is being requested of them. Whole body listening involves more than just using your ears. It means also using your eyes, feet, body, mouth, brain, hands, and heart. Each part plays a specific role so that you can truly focus, hear, and understand what is being said.

Ears, Eyes, Feet, Body, Mouth, and Hands

In whole body listening, your ears have to be ready to hear, but it’s hard to hear when the rest of your body is not prepared. To hear, your eyes must be focused on who is speaking. Looking around the room is not giving your full attention to the person who is talking, and you may miss something that is important.

Although we can easily agree that the ability to listen is important, listening involves more than “hearing” with our ears. So how is this multi-layered skill best taught? To make listening more concrete and teachable, speech pathologist Susanne Poulette Truesdale (1990) came up with a powerful, and now very popular, concept known as “whole body listening.”  This innovative tool breaks down the abstract concept of listening by explaining how each body part other than the ears is involved: the brain thinking about what is being said; the eyes looking at or toward the speaker; the mouth quiet; the body facing toward the speaker; and the hands and feet quiet and kept to oneself. In a more recent article (2013) Truesdale stresses that the most critical part of whole body listening takes place in the brain. She states that “when we are asking someone to think about what we are saying, we are in essence asking for the listener’s brain to be connected and tuned-in.”

Over time, other professionals have expanded the initial whole body listening concept to include the heart as a way to encourage empathy and perspective taking. This later addition is helpful when working on social interactions and relationships in which the purpose of listening is not just to “hear” and interpret what is being said, but also to demonstrate shared involvement to make a positive impression. This expanded concept of whole body listening is woven into parts of Michelle Garcia Winner’s larger Social Thinking® methodology to teach the fundamentals of how and why we listen to figure out the “expected” behavior when around others. Similar to other Social Thinking Vocabulary that breaks down the social code, whole body listening has become a foundational concept to help make this and other abstract concepts more concrete and easier to understand, teach, and practice.

Truesdale emphasizes that whole body listening is “a tool, not a rule,” meaning that adults need to think flexibly about how best to use it. There is no “one way” to teach the whole body listening concept. The goal is to create effective approaches for those with a variety of learning styles. And most importantly, to do this in ways that respect each person’s particular needs and abilities.

Kids Do Well If They Can

When children struggle to meet classroom standards related to listening and following directions, they may be misunderstood or possibly labeled as “behavioral problems.” According to their age/stage of development, we expect children to learn how to focus, listen, and follow directions intuitively, using the “built-in” social regulation sense we assume all children possess. However, some children don’t intuitively acquire the social skills and self-regulation that we typically associate with listening. To support these children, parents and teachers need to take a step back and view the situation through a different lens.

Dr. Ross Greene, a psychologist and expert in working with kids who have challenging behaviors, 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 in which areas our children need support, understanding and/or accommodations so that they can do well. To explain listening in a way that makes sense, a host of social cognitive and sensory processing skills may first need to be concretely taught. And in some cases, children with social learning, sensory processing, attention, or other regulation challenges may not be able to perform tasks generally associated with listening, such as keeping one’s body still, making eye contact, or staying quiet.

What’s So Hard About Listening?

When we prompt children to “get out your math book,” do you get an image in your mind of what that looks like? How about “sit down”? These requests are concrete and simple to define and picture. But words like “listen” or “pay attention” are more abstract and challenging to define. What does this request really mean? How does it look in various situations and contexts? And why even care about listening? They are open for interpretation based on the person asking and the context or situation. For instance: listening during story time is different than listening on the playground or during a conversation. When a request leaves room for interpretation, the person being asked needs to be aware of and consider both the person making the request and the social rules within that context. This requires strong social attention, social awareness, and social perspective taking.

In addition, when met with a request to “listen” some adults expect children to not only listen with their ears, but to stop whatever they are doing and demonstrate that they are listening with their entire body. This adult-defined expectation may include standing completely still, similar to a soldier at attention. This is not only difficult for most children, but impossible for some. Listening with your whole body involves integrating all of the body senses (sensory processing), and combining that with executive functioning (self-control of brain and body), and perspective taking (thinking of others and what they are saying). This is not an easy task and it’s extremely important to be aware of the processing complexity involved. Many children do not fully understand what is expected of them or may not be able to meet the expected demands when it comes to listening.

Whole Body Listening Larry

Love, Health and Wisdom


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