Tips & Tricks For Parents

Use Sabotage to Ensure Your Child is Actively Listening

Shot of a little girl baking with her mother in the kitchen

Have you ever noticed your child nodding out of context, or giving answers that are not appropriate or relevant to the question or conversation at hand? Sometimes, children with hearing loss can become familiar with common words or phrases used in certain situations, and use these without actually actively listening to or understanding what is being communicated. “Sabotage” is a strategy that can be used to not only check if your child is paying attention to the interaction, but to also extend their language and active listening skills.


What is ‘Sabotage’?

‘Sabotage’ occurs when you purposefully create a problem or a difficult situation. This can be used as an opportunity to learn about communication, as you are creating a need or reason to talk. Essentially, we are providing an opportunity for one communication partner to tell the other partner about the problem at hand, or ask for their help to solve it.


Why would we use ‘Sabotage’?

The strategy of sabotage can be used for several different reasons. These include:


Ensure Active Listening

“Sabotage” ensures that the listener is actively listening to and understanding what is being said. There are different cues which we use during conversation to let our communication partner know that we understand what they are saying. These include cues like nodding and smiling and verbal fillers such as “yes”, “uh-huh”, “OK”, “wow”. These word fillers extend the conversation. They tell the talker that we are actively engaged and listening to them. Introducing ‘sabotage’ checks whether a child is using these cues even if they don’t understand what is being said.

Children with a hearing loss may use cues or “fillers” to keep a communication exchange happening even if they can’t hear the message clearly or if the language is too difficult for them to understand. Your child may use these cues so they don’t have to show they are having difficulty understanding, particularly in certain situations, such as when in a classroom or large group. You can use the strategy of sabotage to find out if your child is understanding what is being talked about.

For example:

You: “Do you want to play a game?”

Your child: “Yes.”

You: “What game do you want to play?”

Your child: “Yes.” (Incorrect answer).

Your child may need the question to be rephrased to help facilitate their understanding so they can respond appropriately.

You: “Should we play with the ball or the trains?” (Spoken through “listening alone” which means—do not show your child the toys and use only your voice.)

Your child: Nods head.

You: “Should we play with the ball or the trains?” (Spoken again through “listening alone” first. Then, show your child the ball and train, one at a time as you say each word. This visual cue will help your child match meaning to the words, and support them in understanding that the question is a choice.

Your child: Reaches for the ball.

You: “Oh, you want to play with the ball. Can you tell me ‘ball please’?” (Holds the ball out of reach of your child—this is another step of the sabotage. Your child then has to talk; that is, they need to say “Ball, please” to request the ball.

Your child: “Ball please.”


Do Something Silly or Absurd in an Everyday Situation.

Sabotage can help to keep communication exchanges interesting and fun, particularly for children who have advanced listening and language skills. This can be done by doing something silly or absurd in an everyday routine. Here is one example:

When changing the routine of an activity, do something where your child will want to communicate with you about it. This could be giving your child a fork to eat soup with, or trying to put their small shoes on your much bigger feet. You might mix up the predictable words in a familiar song or rhyme, or create a different ending to a predictable story that’s being read aloud. The idea is for your child to recognise the change or absurdity, thus creating an opportunity or a need to talk about it.

For example:

You: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Frog…”

Your child: “No, that’s not right!”

You: “What do you mean? That’s the way it goes—Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Frog!”

Your child: “No! It’s Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star!”

You:” Little star? Well, why is it ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ and not ‘Little frog’?”

Your child: “Because it is!”

You: “Don’t little frogs twinkle?”

Your child: “No! Stars twinkle!”

You: “Well, what do little frogs do?”

Your child: “They jump!”

You: “Yes, I suppose they do jump. You’re right. They might also glisten when they jump out of the water! We could make up a new song! ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Glistening Frog’. What do you think?”

Your child: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Glistening Frog.”

You: “How I wonder how you jump off that log!”

The key to using sabotage is to ensure you control the “problem” and allowing your child to be the key to solving it! If you are holding items of interest out of reach, or pretending to not understand what the problem is, wait for your child to use their thinking skills and the correct language to resolve the issue. Pretend to not understand what your child is trying to communicate until you feel that they have communicated their message effectively or appropriately for their level of language. For a child who is in the early stages of developing language, a vocalisation or single word may be acceptable. For a child with more advanced language skills, a phrase or descriptor of the problem and/or a solution to the problem may be a suitable answer from your child.

Be mindful that there can be a fine line between providing a learning moment through sabotage, and setting your child up for failure. If your child is having difficulty indicating to you what the problem is and/or a way to resolve it, turn the sabotage into a teaching moment. That is, demonstrate to your child the language that could be used in that situation to help solve the problem, and support them by solving it together! Your child will then learn from you the language needed to solve these sabotage moments in the future.


This post was written by Ingrid Steyns, a certified Speech-Language Pathologist, Listening and Spoken Language Specialist and qualified Rehabilitation Counsellor.

Liked this post on teaching your child how to actively listen? Find out about other strategies that can be used to support communication interaction and increase language and thinking skills: auditory closure, using everyday routines, or using books to develop Theory of Mind skills.

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