The importance of attention and listening in language development

Signup to our Newsletter


“Joint attention is the first step into a shared world with others.” Babies – Netflix Series. Without the ability to focus and sustain attention, social interactions cannot take place. Research suggests that children with Autism often struggle with joint attention (Mundy et al., 1990).

Communication development is often represented as a pyramid with one skill building on the last (see below). Attention and listening are the foundations that all other skills are built on. Addressing speech and language difficulties without good attention skills is extremely difficult. Unfortunately, building attention is often overlooked as a communication goal, but if a child can’t attend to a therapy activity, they will have difficulty learning and generalising higher order skills.

The importance of attention and listening in language development » Attention and listening
The SLT Scrapbook, Attention and Listening Skills

Attention and Listening Development

In 1978, Cooper, Moodley and Reynell broke attention and listening skills down in the  following way:

Birth – 1 year

Children present with fleeting attention. They are easily distracted and their attention flits between people and objects.

1 – 2 years

Children have ‘rigid attention’, where they concentrate on a task of their choosing. They may not respond to their name being called and do not manage interruption

2 – 3 years

Children progress to ‘single channelled attention’. They can attend to an activity that is suggested/presented by an adult. They can follow simple instructions but cannot do this while completing a task simultaneously. For example if a child is playing with blocks and you need them to put their shoes on, you will need them to stop playing before you given them an instruction, ‘can you put your shoes on please.’

3 – 4 years

Children have ‘focused attention’, they can only concentrate on one thing at time, but they can now shift their attention to an alternative activity without support. At this stage, you still may need to call out the child’s name to gain their initial attention, but they can respond to you quickly.

4 – 5 years

Children should now be developing ‘two channelled attention’, where they should be able to listen to instructions while completing another activity at the same time.

5 -6 years

By the time a child is 6, they should have developed ‘integrated attention’. They should be able to attend to activities without frequent reminding to stay on task and be able to attend to people and activities in numerous environments.

Tips to build attention and listening

  • Get your child’s attention before you speak to them. Call their name, position yourself so you are facing them or even give them a gentle touch to direct their attention to you.
  • Reduce external distractions. Turn off the TV, and limit the number of distracting toys.
  • Use a visual schedule (see our previous blog). This may assist your child with completing a new a task, by giving them an idea of what is expect of them and what they can do next.
  • Remember, attention takes time to build. Aim for adding a minute or two for a child who currently attends for 2-5 minutes.
  • Have a look at and download some of these handy resources.
  • Most importantly, to gain your child’s attention, you need to be the most interesting thing in the room!


Attention Building Activities

  • Cause and effect games. Begin with activities that only last for seconds, e.g. light spinners, click clack cars, bubbles, pom pom poppers and balloons. For some ideas head to our pinterest board
  • These give you an opportunity to model lots of language and have a clear end.
  • Nursery rhymes. I like to use nursery rhymes with actions. Children with minimal language might use gestures before they speak. As nursery rhymes are repetitive, we can leave a gap, giving the child time to fill it in with babble, speech, gesture or eye gaze.


How can we help?

If you are concerned about your child’s attention, book a consultation with one of our therapists. At small TALK our therapists are trained to build children’s attention, and Simone has completed training in the Attention Autism program. This program was designed to help build communication, interaction, attention and leaning skills in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The activities within the program are motivating are broken down into four progressive stages. Attention Autism creates an environment where children and adults can share a fun and motivating experiencing worth communicating about. The program is broken into four stages. These stages are progressive and require increased attention and listening demands.

The importance of attention and listening in language development » Attention and listening
Attention Autism Stages

If you are concerned about your child’s attention and communication, book a consultation with a Speech Pathologist for further investigation and assessment.


Cooper, Moodley and Reynell, (1978) Helping Language Development.

Elks and McLachlan, (2009) Early Language Builders.

Wicks, W., Paynter, J., & Westerveld, M., (2020). Looking or talking: Visual attention and verbal engagement during shared book ready of preschool children on the autism spectrum. Autism, 24 (6) 1-16.

Babies, Directed by Thomas Balmès, Netflix, 2020.

Share this article

Related Posts

Log In

Skip to content