Dr. Judy's Newsletter March-April 2019

The Value of Active Listening

Looming before me was a conference with parents who were concerned that their child was not being challenged enough in math. I was prepared and full of suggestions...and that was the problem. I was a distracted, unfocused listener as they voiced their concerns, jumping in before they finished their questions and thinking ahead about what I'd say next. When I realized it wasn't going well when, I tried to reboot my focus. I listened more, said less, and paid more attention to their tones of voice, postures, and facial expressions. It made a difference and shifted to a positive nature and productive outcome of the conference. As I progressed as a teacher, I learned more about the active listening skills that came to my aide that conference day.

Communication is more than meets the ear

Good communication skills go beyond speaking and listening. They include being tuned in to the speaker's nonverbal behavior, emotions, and deeper meanings beyond the words. By employing
active listening skills in conferences with individual students or their parents, you'll promote mutual understanding and successful outcomes.

What is Active Listening?
Active listening encompasses being non-judgmental, with the emphasis on listening and not immediately solving the issue or problem. Active listeners don't jump ahead to think about solutions while the speaker is still speaking. They refrain from letting defensive feelings kick in.

Actions of Active Listening
Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding to others such that your students or their parents know you are truly interested in their ideas, concerns, and opinions. The process involves your undivided attention, withholding judgment, and being mindful of your facial expressions and body language as nonverbal communications to show your respect for the speaker.

Suspend judgment
Misunderstandings or jumping to conclusions, often caused by our own biases or expectations based on past experiences, can be reduced in advance. Before and while listening to the speaker, check your own frame of reference to avoid letting your preconceptions or predictions of what will be said interfere with your fully attending to the speaker.

Focus on the speaker

  • Maintain eye contact
  • Watch for non-verbal cues such as the speaker's facial expressions, vocal inflection, or posture.
  • Consider how your own, tone, posture, position, and expressions, although silent, might be interpreted by the speaker.
  • Either remain neutral, or provide encouraging non-verbal cues such as nodding affirmatively, smiling, or leaning towards the speaker. For more reluctant speakers, you can offer encouraging words like, "I hear what you are saying," or "Please continue."

No interruptions (or questions)
Even questions you feel are important may potentially interrupt the speaker's flow as well as confidence. If you can, try to remember your question. If you need to, write your questions and thoughts down, but explain before the conference that what you write is to help you remember things said and that you want to ask. To reinforce trust and further communication, keep these open for the speaker to see.

Wait time benefits: Pausing before you respond serves several purposes
  • It is a natural tendency to jump in with solutions, especially as you've likely given thought to the conversation in advance. However, this can block further communication if the speaker has not finished. Your interruption can then be frustratingly interpreted as lack of interest in hearing any more. You may also find that as the speaker continues, and you actively listen, you achieve greater insight and ultimately provide even better suggestions.
  • Waiting to be sure they are finished, as well as not interrupting, shows you are focused on the speaker. Not jumping in before giving thought to what you've heard helps prevent misunderstandings.
  • You'll also find that during the pause, the speaker (while collecting his/her thoughts and evaluating your responsiveness) may add additional highly important information. One explanation is that the pause, by acknowledging your focus, gives the speaker the reassurance to reveal what he or she was reluctant to share now confidant of your empathy or understanding.
  • Remember that sustaining eye-contact and engaged posture is critical to assure wait time is interpreted as your interest rather than boredom or distraction.

Responses after the wait time
  • Verbalizing the feelings you perceived from the speaker is valuable, but keep your words from sounding accusatory. Consider instead of “You sound very frustrated.” using the phrasing, "I feel you are frustrated, is that right?"
  • Summarizing what you heard, using the speaker's words or your own words, confirms your desire to truly understand, build trust, and provide more opportunities for the speaker to clarify or extend. “It seems to me that you are saying that..., but please let me know if I'm misunderstanding you or missing something."

  • Ask for their input regarding next step or solutions
  • Reject no ideas or suggestions they make outright while they give you their feedback
  • Only after the speakers have a chance to reply, ask if they'd like your input, before jumping in too soon.

Summary of Active Listening
  • Focus your attention non-judgmentally
  • Maintain eye-contact and a neutral, engaged, encouraging posture
  • Wait and don’t interrupt
  • Summarize your understanding
  • Ask permission to respond with feedback


As you build upon your active listening skills, you'll find your conversational partners' positive emotional states and responses reflect their trust and awareness that they have your full, nonjudgmental attention.


Books by Judy Willis, M.D.
Upgrade Your Teaching: Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience by Jay McTighe and Judy Willis, M.D.   Annual Editors’ Selected ASCD Membership Book  (Release Mar/Apr 2019) http://www.ascd.org/Publications/Books/Overview/Upgrade-Your-Teaching.aspx?utm_source=membership&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=mmbr-Apr-2019-Book-Choice

Research-Based Strategies To Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist/Classroom Teacher, ASCD 2006 http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/107006.aspx

Learning to Love Math: Teaching Strategies that Change Student Attitudes and Get Results,
ASCD 2010 http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/108073.aspx?utm_source=ascdfacebook&utm_medium=social-media&utm_campaign=math-willis-fb

The Neuroscience of Learning: Principles and Applications for Educators. (2014) Bridgepoint Education, Inc. https://learn.thuze.com/store/product/THUZE.HSS.PSY.9781621781639

How Your Child Learns Best
: Brain-Based Ways to Ignite Learning and Increase School Success. Foreword by Goldie Hawn. Sourcebooks: 2008. http://www.amazon.com/Your-Child-Learns-Best-Brain-Friendly/dp/1402213468

Teaching the Brain to Read: Strategies for Improving Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension ASCD August 2008. http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/107073.aspx

Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom, ASCD 2007 http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/107040.aspx

Inspiring Middle School Minds: Gifted, Creative, And Challenging. Great Potentials Press, 2008. http://amzn.to/1wwMsg4

Below are some useful links to some of my popular links to which you can link and reproduce the items of use to you:
Edutopia’s 'Big Thinker on Education' and Staff Blogger
“Meet Dr Judy Willis, EDUTOPIA Staff Blogger”  https://www.edutopia.org/users/judy-willis-md (This works best if you cut and paste web address)

NBC News Education Nation Staff Expert and Blogger Parent Toolkit

Psychology Today" How Children Learn online staff writer: Articles regarding learning and the brain: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/radical-teaching

I'm looking forward to lots of presentations, conferences, district, and school talks in the coming months. You can check these on my website.

Keep igniting,

Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed. jwillisneuro@aol.com www.RADTeach.com