The real reasons why toddlers don’t listen

How to get your toddler to listen?

Ahh, have you ever been wondering about what’s happening in your children’s head when you clearly asked them – at least a million times –  not to run in the house and still like if they did not hear you, they keep running and you lose all your strength to stay calm…

Well, I’m sure that it happens with everyone, with every parent, family members, friends and teachers. I mean… it happened with me almost every day in the last 9 years or so…what about you?

Today, I want to bring you good news. I would like to help you understand what's happening in your little one's brain - why it is so hard to listen - and I prepared you a video and eBook that you can download for free in which I give you 10 tips that I used in schools/nurseries ; ) 

The reasons why toddlers don't listen

There are so many reasons why toddlers might not listen sometimes... but now, in this article, I would like to share 3 very real reasons why toddlers are not able to listen like adults.

I will talk about these three later in this post but now let's clear some things up about hearing and listening.

Hearing vs Listening

Sometimes, and I am not an exception, we love to think that if we say something once and it is heard, then it will be done because hearing is basically listening, right? Hmm 😀 is it really? So why our children keep running if they heard us?

What is hearing?

Hearing is the ability to perceive sound by detecting vibrations through the ear and this sound stimulus will be sent to the brain for reception. It is typically present from birth.

What is listening?

Listening is an active process, a skill that develops over time. It requires lots of practice for children to make sense of a sound and to recognise its importance. It also requires paying attention - and this is one of the things that toddlers are not really good at (yet) - and I am going to talk about it later.

Now that we know the difference, let's learn about the development of listening.

How listening is developed?

The development of the brain

The brain rapidly changes and develops from birth and by the age of three, a big bulk of the brain has developed. Sounds amazing, right?

But there are some important parts of the brain that haven’t fully developed yet and connected to listening:

  • The human auditory brain structure
  • Prefrontal cortex

The human auditory brain structure is not fully mature until approximately 15 years of age! and the prefrontal cortex (sits at the front) that needs more time (approximately another 17 years) to fully develop!

How is the prefrontal cortex and listening linked? The prefrontal cortex is responsible for (just to mention some):

  • Attention and concentration /extremely important when it comes to listening, right?
  • Working memory
  • Decision making
  • Emotional responses to situations (i.e., emotion regulation)

FREE DOWNLOAD: How to get your toddler to listen immediately video and eBook - 10 tactics that I used and worked!

Attention Span of a Child

To listen, we need to pay attention.

Listening goes hand in hand with attention (there’s a reason they’re joined in the foundation stage curriculum). To listen you have to bring your attention to the person speaking and focus on what they are saying, blocking out other distractions. Our brains learn to do this gradually, as we become more able to focus on what someone else is saying and ignore other distractions. - Amanda Baxter, speech and language therapist

According to the EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) children at the age of

8-20 months

  • Concentrates intently on an object or activity of own choosing for short periods.
  • Pays attention to dominant stimulus – easily distracted by noises or other people talking.

16-26 months

  • Listens to and enjoys rhythmic patterns in rhymes and stories.
  • Enjoys rhymes and demonstrates listening by trying to join in with actions or vocalisations.

22-36 months

  • Listens with interest to the noises adults make when they read stories.
  • Recognises and responds to many familiar sounds, e.g. turning to a knock on the door, looking at or going to the door.
  • Shows interest in play with sounds, songs and rhymes.
  • Single channelled attention.
  • Can shift to a different task if attention fully obtained – using child’s name helps focus.

30-50 months

  • Listens to others one to one or in small groups, when conversation interests them.
  • Listens to stories with increasing attention and recall.
  • Joins in with repeated refrains and anticipates key events and phrases in rhymes and stories.
  • Focusing attention – still listen or do, but can shift own attention.
  • Is able to follow directions (if not intently focused on own choice of activity).

Attention Span by Age

The so-called attention span formulas range from their chronological age +1 to 2-5 minutes of attention per each year of their chronological age. While there isn’t a perfect science to these theories, here’s a useful attention span by age chart to help give you some basic guidelines.

Again, all children are different and their attention spans will develop at different rates. If they are struggling with ADHD or any other conditions that impact their focus and attention, these guidelines may not pertain to your child. - Judith Kamau from Neuron Learning

Are children able to listen as adults?

I guess you already know the answer to this one.

No, children (in our case toddlers) are not able to listen like adults.

Imagine, we are trying to compare an adult, fully developed brain with a three years old brain…

Toddlers can definitely do lots of things and their brain works like a sponge but their listening skills are not at the same level yet.

Can we get toddlers to listen?

We sure can : ) Just because their brain hasn’t fully developed yet doesn’t mean that they can’t listen at all and it certainly doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try to.

They need to develop and improve their listening skills with our help and that’s how we can get them to listen.

To help them, we can use various methods, tactics and activities.

I can give you 10 tips now.

Click on the image above to start your free download.

Reference list:

Judith Kamau (2018) Building Listening Skills to Improve Focus & Attention. Neuron Learning [Online] Available at

Amanda Baxter  (2016) Top tips for listening. Pacey. [Online] Available at


The Hearing Review: Listening Is Where Hearing Meets Brain …in Children and Adults (2011) [Online] Available at

FTF: Brain Development [Online] Available at

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Hi, it's Eva, Early Years and Parenting Consultant and the founder of Wonder Toddlers. I am sharing my knowledge and experience about child development and teaching in a blog form and I offer email consultations. Have a look around, sign up for more free parenting and teaching tips and I send you my eBook "How to develop your toddler's writing skill" as a token of my appreciation.