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The Power of Authentic Listening: At Home and In the Classroom

Written by Bethany Todd, in Collaboration with Laura Barr


“Listen to me”, we all beg of our children. But, do we ever stop to explain what we mean?  I imagine that many of us don’t. However, explaining what we mean could improve communication and understanding between our child or students and yourself. Improving communication decreases poor behavior, aids in everyday activities going more smoothly, and emphasizes things like respect, love, and openness.


While many of us listen to our children, we often are doing what I call, multi-task listening. We are cooking dinner, interjecting our own thoughts and checking our emails, all while we are listening. Authentic listening is harder. It requires us to limit distractions and think about more than just the words that someone is saying. William Ury, author and academic, states that in order to engage in authentic listening we need to “start listening to the human being behind the words.”


Authentic listening is a mindful and intentional process. While we can’t engage in authentic listening all day; because I really do have to cook dinner, check homework and listen at the same time, it’s important to be in awareness of what good listening is and to carve out time in the day for it.  Doing so may save you time, which may otherwise be spent on re-communicating or addressing misbehavior.


Click below to hear William Ury’s Ted Talk about the power of authentic listening.


Listening as a Form of Respect and Behavior Management

“Listening is absolutely necessary but often overlooked.” – William Ury

Listening to someone’s thoughts and ideas is a form of respect. It is a way of showing a person that you value them and are open to hearing what they say. Listening to our children or students matters to them. Creating relationships built  on mutual respect improves behavior. When children feel respected, they are more likely to be respectful.


I recently read an article on how to command your students respect. I think that command and respect don’t go together. We earn our students respect when we show them authentic respect through listening. Dignifying students through relationships built on respect naturally lead to positive classroom and home behavior.


It’s not a secret that teachers are too busy. There is never enough time in the day to teach the children everything they need and want to know. Therefore, listening often gets overlooked. When teachers make time to listen to their students, both academically and personally, then I believe  they gain valuable time.  Many students misbehavior comes from a need for attention. This need can be met by giving your students time and listening to them.


Responsive Classroom is an approach to classroom management. It focuses on the importance of social emotional learning. One of the core principles is “knowing the children we teach—individually, culturally, and developmentally—is as important as knowing the content we teach.” Knowing the children requires authentically listening to them.


If teachers are busy, when can they engage in authentic listening? Responsive Classroom created an activity that takes place every morning: the “morning meetings”. During morning meetings, the students have an opportunity to share and everyone has time to engage in authentic listening. Other times of the day that are good for authentic listening are during the transition into starting the day, during some student’s breakfast,  recess, or during lunch (maybe once a week).



Listening as a Concrete Skill to Learn

Have you ever been taught to listen? Listening is something that we expect children and parents to know and understand but sometimes we forget to teach it. Listening is an abstract and  vague concept. It requires concrete tools to accomplish.


Concrete Tools for Teaching Children (and adults) to Listen

  1. Listen with your body: Body, Eyes, and Ears
  2. I teach my students that when Mrs. Todd is talking, they stop what they are doing. Their bodies stop jumping, running, or playing with a toy. Then, I ask them to look at me with their eyes. This reminds them where their focus should be. Lastly, they listen with their ears. I have them imagine that their ears are outstretched toward me as they think about listening to what I’m saying.
  3. Acknowledge that you are listening: Students show acknowledgement that they are engaged in listening by using body language or raising their hand.
  4. Repeat back
  5. Children try to remember what they heard by recalling it if asked or mentally, repeating the information back to themselves.


Two Examples of Authentic Listeners

Ms Sarah

Ms. Sarah was my daughter’s preschool teacher for two years. She started every day on time with circle time in which parents were invited to stay. During this time, each child was able to share, ANYTHING! Ms. Sarah always listened with her whole body and mind. She laughed, cried, looked at you, asked questions and valued each child’s words, treasure, and being. Everyone learned to be a good listener by watching her model it every day. This developed parents and children’s utter respect and love for her. That love created a community and foundation for social emotional learning.  Ms. Sarah loved her students very much and her authentic listening at the start of each day communicated that to everyone.

Ms. Sarah recently passed away. Her school community/family has been devastated. A fellow parent, wrote a beautiful tribute to her. I invite you to read and and think about the impacts of Ms. Sarah’s authentic listening.

Remembering Ms. Sarah



My mother- in -law is the best listener to my children. When she is with them or even on the phone with them, she is listening so intently. My husband says that “she talks on their level”, but I think I would interpret that as she authentically listens to them. When the children talk to Nanna, she responds to exactly what they are talking about. She can talk endlessly about cars, pretend horses, fairies, and more. When they talk to her, she continuously inquires for more information by asking questions and showed that she was listening by restating their thoughts. My children adore her. They love being listened to. They love their words being respected and dignified.


William Ury says, authentic listening is contagious. If you start doing it now, others will catch on.




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