HELP! My child has selective hearing

A fellow mum was exasperated and said to me, “He has selective hearing. I know what he can hear me but he chooses not to listen.” I’m sure many of you are nodding your heads with empathy.  

Sometimes it may appear that your child is choosing to listen to you only when it pleases them but there are times when there may be other underlying reasons for this behaviour.

Possible causes of ‘selective hearing’

1. Hearing difficulties


Your first thought may be, “But they had their hearing tested at birth.” That may be the case but your child’s hearing can fluctuate.

By the time they reach school age, one in 20 children have hearing loss in one ear. Lieu et al., 2010

The most common cause of this would be ear infections, particularly if they are recurrent. It is well recognised that hearing is critical to speech and language development, communication, and learning. By its very nature, hearing loss results in selective hearing. Most people with hearing loss have to pay attention when listening. Unlike people with typical hearing, listening is not passive. Listening requires effort, Nobody can pay attention 100% of the time, so the child with hearing loss has to “select” when to hear. The American Academy of Paediatrics actually recommends that every child with 1 or more risk factors on the hearing risk assessment should have ongoing developmentally appropriate hearing screening and at least 1 diagnostic audiology assessment by 24 to 30 months of age. You can read more about risk factors in this publication –

What to do: If you are concerned about your child’s hearing, it is best to it assessed by an audiologist.

2. Language difficulties

jelleke-vanooteghem-337719You may think your child is misbehaving and not following your instructions but for some children, it could be an unidentified language difficulty. In speech pathology, language refers to understanding and using words, grammar, sentence structure to communicate. Children with normal hearing may hear speech sounds well, but not be able to convert them into a useful message.

The Murdoch Childrens Research Institute revealed in July 2017 that developmental language disorder affects between five and eight percent of children Australia-wide.

Speech and language skills develop in a typical pattern. Check out the Communication Milestones kit from Speech Pathology Australia ( to see if your child’s language skills are developing within the expected timeframes.

What to do: Don’t “wait and see”. If you are concerned, speak to a speech pathologist.

Sometimes it is neither of those things…so what can you do it your kids are selective hearing champions?

Our Top Tips for Building Good Listening Skills:


  • Break it down – Kids have short attention spans. Shorten your instructions and give one or two key instructions at a time.
  • Look at me – Go up to them, get down to their level and ensure they are looking directly at you.
  • Clarify – Ask your child to repeat back what you have just said to check for understanding
  • Remove distractions – Kids become engrossed in the world around them. Momentarily take away distractions so you have their full attention.
  • Make it visual – If you’re asking your child to do something that happens frequently, print out some pictures to remind them visually of what is required.

Let us know if these tips work for you. What other tips have worked for you?

Remember, when in doubt,  seek advice. Better to know sooner than later!

References: Lieu JEC, Tye-Murray N, Karzon RK, Piccirillo JF. Unilateral hearing loss is associated with worse speech-language scores in children. Pediatrics, 2010; 125 (6)