Communication begins from the moment your child enters the world and it’s not just about words. Parents & children communicate when they play peek-a-boo, sing a song during a diaper change, or roll a ball back-and-forth on the floor. Communication is about interaction & shared intention between a parent & child. The good news for parents of toddlers is that helping your child become a better communicator doesn’t have to be stressful. It doesn’t have to involve adding another item to your to-do list either. Helping your child become a better communicator is about building on the connection you already share. Integrating simple language building strategies into your daily routines, play, & book reading time is where parents of toddlers can begin. Amazingly simple. Incredibly effective.
Follow Your Child’s Lead
One of the most effective ways to get your child talking is to figure out what he wants to talk about. Take a moment to observe your child and determine what he is interested in. Is he in the mood for rough & tumble play? Interested in playing with a particular toy or object? Your child will communicate a lot more when he is motivated by what you’re doing together. Every time your child leads an interaction, he’ll be building vocabulary & language skills related to the toys & experiences that are most interesting to him. Start an interaction by following your child’s lead. It may surprise you how easily this simple strategy can help your child communicate.
Get Down On Your Child’s Level
Your child is not a mini-adult. Get down on the floor. Get face-to-face. Will talking to your child from across the room happen from time to time? Yes. Is it the best approach to use when you want to work on building your child’s communication skills? Absolutely not. When you are ready to focus on helping your child become a better communicator, you must get face-to-face. You’ll connect more easily. You’ll be able to maintain your child’s attention more effectively & tune her into your words. Getting face-to-face is not just important, it’s essential.
Observe. Wait. Listen. (OWL)
OWL (Observe. Wait. Listen.) is an incredibly effective strategy parents can use with their children to support communication growth. It’s also incredibly simple. Tune in. Observe your child’s actions, gestures, words, & facial expressions before you start the interaction. Once you figure out what your child is interested in, get face-to-face and give your child with plenty of wait time to respond to your comments or questions. It may seem counterintuitive, but getting comfortable with more silence, not more words, is an important part of helping your child learn language. Stop talking. Lean forward. Wait. Listen to your child’s sounds or words. When you stop to tune in to your child, you are sending an important message: you care about what he or she has to say. When your child knows that you care what he has to say, it reinforces his effort to keep trying to communicate, even when you don’t understand him the first time.
Communication Is Key
Your child knows when she is just repeating a word because mommy or daddy wants her to, and when she is using language to communicate a message. If you find yourself telling your child to “Say ” during play (i.e., “Say apple!”, “Say cooking!”, “Say eating!”, etc.), you may be inadvertently putting pressure on your child to communicate. For many children, this can have the opposite intended effect. Some children will stop talking. Others will completely stop interacting with a parent. When the interaction stops, so does the opportunity to build language. Be cognizant of why you are trying to get your child to talk. Helping a child to communicate to relay a message & continue the interaction is quite different than simply getting a child to label every toy or action during play for the sake of producing words. Children are amazingly intuitive at discerning the difference. Parents should be too.
On Setting Limits & Individual Differences
Should you always let your child lead? Absolutely not. If your child is engaging in a dangerous behavior or testing limits, it is not the appropriate time for building language through interaction. The best time to help your child learn language is when you are connecting and having fun together during play.
Children have vastly different learning & communication styles. Some of these differences can make it more challenging for parents to sustain interactions & support communication growth. Communication depends on your child’s ability to start interactions and respond to others when they start an interaction with her. Personality also plays a role, as does your child’s comfort level with a situation or person.
If you have difficulty starting or maintaining an interaction with your child during play and are feeling frustrated, educate yourself about developmental milestones in the area of communication, play & attention and make sure the expectations you have for your child are developmentally appropriate. If they are & you are still having difficulty, consider getting help & advice from a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP). An SLP is the professional who has the training & expertise to address communication challenges & guide parents in supporting their child’s growth.
If you enjoyed reading about these language building strategies, take a look at these fabulous & highly recommended books from The Hanen Centre, a not-for-profit organization that helps parents, caregivers & related professionals by providing knowledge & training in the area of child language & literacy:
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