Why it's important to practise active listening with your students

Why it’s important to practise active listening with your students

“Pay attention.” “OK class, listen up.” “When I’m talking, I need everyone to listen.” How many times have you asked your students to listen to you in class? It probably runs into the thousands. As teachers, you continuously encourage your students to listen and pay...

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“Pay attention.”

“OK class, listen up.”

“When I’m talking, I need everyone to listen.”

How many times have you asked your students to listen to you in class? It probably runs into the thousands. As teachers, you continuously encourage your students to listen and pay attention – but when was the last time you considered your own listening skills?

Teachers need to be on the ball constantly. In class, you’re often thinking ahead to the next activity or teaching point, or even the following period, while you supervise students’ work, answer questions and offer support.

But learning to be present and attentive is an important skill too. And if you can master the art of active listening, it can transform your relationships with your students.

What is active listening?

Active listening is a method of listening which is very focused and responsive. In order to be an active listener in a conversation, you need to give the other person your undivided attention, without judging their concerns or opinions.

It’s key to respond, not react, to the speaker. That means using your facial expressions and body language to show that you are paying attention to them. Examples include nodding as the other person speaks, or keeping your body language open and relaxed. Try to avoid any non-verbal communication that could imply judgement, such as frowning or folding your arms, or which imply a lack of focus, for example looking at your watch or looking around the room.

When you are actively listening, the speaker should know that you are deeply interested in what they are saying. The goal of active listening is not to offer solutions or advice, but to achieve a profound understanding of the other person’s perspective.

How active listening can improve your relationships with your students

Active listening is a powerful tool. It makes the speaker feel cared for and understood. And when students feel that their teacher is interested in what they have to say, and really cares about their experiences and perspectives, it creates an emotional connection which can have a positive impact both on their wellbeing and their school experience.

What’s more, research shows that students who feel connected to their teachers are more motivated to work hard and perform well. So, you’re likely to notice an improvement in their academic efforts and achievement, too.

What do you need to be an active listener?

In order to be an active listener, you need to tap into your curiosity and your empathy. It’s about really wanting to know how the other person thinks and feels. Sometimes, that can mean paying extra attention to the phrases or vocabulary your student is using, and thinking about the emotions that are behind what they are saying. Even if they are struggling with a common challenge, it’s important that you try to approach the conversation as if you’ve never heard what they’re saying before.

The dos and don’ts of active listening

Here are the dos and don’ts of active listening which you can put into practice immediately with your students.

When you are practising active listening, it is important to:

  • Think about your body language. Try to aim for open, relaxed body language which shows you are present, such as leaning towards the person speaking, or nodding your head from time to time.
  • Be aware of eye contact while the other person is speaking. Ideally, you’ll maintain eye contact for between 60% and 70% of the conversation. More than this can actually make the other person clam up.
  • Be patient while your student is explaining themselves. Listening is easier than talking, but it’s important to give your student time and space to articulate themselves.
  • Keep your responses open. You can paraphrase what your student has said in response to them – that way, they’ll know that you’ve been paying attention.
  • Keep your questions neutral. For example, instead of saying, “Do you think that’s a good idea?” you could ask, “What do you think will happen?” You can also say, “Tell me more about that,” as a way to keep the conversation going.

During these conversations, there are some things to avoid:

  • Resist interrupting while the other person is talking. It’s important to let your student find their way in the conversation without your input.
  • Don’t think of your response while your student is still speaking. This will distract you from focusing on what they’re saying, which might change over the course of a sentence or two anyway.
  • Try not to offer unsolicited advice or opinions. Sometimes, all your students want is to feel heard, and the experience of someone listening attentively and compassionately while they share a problem is actually of more help than any practical advice.
  • Don’t share personal anecdotes. This takes the focus away from the speaker and back to you.
  • Avoid changing the subject, even if you feel uncomfortable. This will make your student feel that they were wrong to share with you, and that you haven’t really been listening. Try to sit with your discomfort instead.

Further reading

You can read more on our blog about how to prioritise your students’ happiness in the classroom, and learn how to support your students’ mental health and wellbeing, especially after two years of educational disruption and uncertainty.

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