How to actually get your kids to listen

It’s taken me a long time to figure out how to work with kids with disabilities, and I’m still working on it today. I thought I had the hang of it when I was a camp counselor and all I had to do was have fun with kids. When I became a PT and suddenly had to convince kids to move in ways that are really hard for them, the conversation changed. From the first week, when I wrestled a toy out of a kid’s hands (not my finest moment), to developing some pretty good relationships over the years, I’ve made a lot of progress on my own.

Book cover, featuring the title in speech bubbles in primary colors

Despite my progress, I wish I had a bit more help. I’ve finally found the help I needed: How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. It covers how to deal with bad behaviors, how to help your child gain confidence, and how to encourage cooperation. I highly recommend it to all parents, whether your children are disabled or not. This book includes many tips that I have learned on my own as well as a few new tricks that I’ve found to be highly useful. Today I want to share with you the three skills I’m working on after reading this book:

Giving specific praise

I’ve always known praise is important. I often sprinkle “Good job!” “Beautiful!” and “Wonderful!” all over the kids I work with. The problem with these value words, though, is that kids can feel judged, pressured, or even negate the praise. I have received looks or protests from kids in the past who thought my praise was incorrect or ill-placed.

Instead of using value words, I’m working on simply describing what a child is doing or how it makes me feel. Descriptive phrases point out what a child has accomplished. It also gives them the freedom to make mistakes, try again, and grow, without it affecting their value as a human being. My new praise sounds like, “You pushed the bike pedals!” “You kept your balance for 10 whole seconds!” and “It makes me happy when you want to play with me.”

While it requires effort to change my habits and give specific compliments, it gives kids room to grow and try new things without the pressure to be “good” or “wonderful.” This praise is so much more encouraging and motivating for kids than my value words have ever been.

Talking to kids, not about them

Somewhere along the way, we switch from talking about infants to talking to adults. Most parents probably start this switch when their children start contributing to conversations and making decisions for themselves. When do you make this transition with children who have disabilities affecting their communication and cognition?

For kids with disabilities there are so many adults in their life talking about them; doctors, nurses, therapists, teachers, the whole IEP team, social workers, the list goes on. When we include kids in these conversations, it tells them that they are an autonomous human being who is a part of the conversation about their own life. As a result, it encourages them to be active in making decisions about their own life.

While this has been the hardest habit for me to change, I’m trying to make this switch as early as possible. Whether I’m working with a toddler who can sign two words, or a teenager who can laugh and cry, I’m doing my best to speak to them to let them know they matter in their own life.

Asking less questions

Asking questions doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence. Asking a kid “Can you do this?” tells them I’m doubting their abilities. To show them I believe in them I can instead say, “I bet you can do this,” or even “Let’s just try this and see what happens.” These statements show kids I have confidence in their abilities, which is so much more encouraging.

In my PT sessions, asking a kid to think about doing a difficult movement and answer a question at the same time is often too much. Instead of asking, “Was that easy or hard?” I say, “That seems difficult.” Instead of asking “Do you want to play this game or that game?” I can say, “You can choose this game or that game.” These statements put less pressure on the child I’m working with and leaves their brain power for the difficult movement tasks I’m asking them to do.

Another reason I ask kids a lot of questions is to learn about their interests, but it can get a bit intrusive and feel forced. Instead of asking “Is that your favorite toy?” or “Can you show me how it works?” I can simply say, “That looks interesting,” or “I’d love to see how it works.” Commenting on a kids’ interests gives them the opportunity to tell me more, and it shows more genuine interest.


The final lesson I’ve learned from this book is that these aren’t just ways to talk to kids. When I use these methods with adults, I’ve found my interactions with them get better too.

As an example, one of my friends just started law school. My first instinct was to respond to one of her messages with, “How’s law school going?” but instead I said, “Wow, law school sounds intense!” She usually takes weeks to respond to my messages, but after that comment, she responded right away with a long message! My comment came across as a lot more interested than any question ever could.

I’m interested to know if you’ve tried any of these techniques and how they’ve worked for you. I can’t wait to read about your experiences in the comments section.

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