Strategies to help your late toddler to communicate

Many parents ask me why their child is a late talker. Speech-language delays are common because oral communication is a complex process. There are many neurological processes that must occur to say just one word! A child has to get his parent’s attention, know the word, find the right word in her brain, send the word from his brain to his mouth and coordinate movements of her mouth to form the word.  Sometimes, the reasons for these difficulties are obvious. Other times, it is unclear why the child is having communication difficulties.

Early intervention is vital for children with speech-language delays because most brain cell connections are made during infancy and early childhood! Connections that are used repeatedly during the child’s early years become the foundation for the brain’s organization and function throughout life.  In contrast, a connection that is not used results in a lack of development or even the disappearance of these connections.  For example, a child who is rarely spoken to or read to in the early years may have difficulty mastering language skills later on.

Here are 10 effective strategies that encourage communication in young ones (based upon the Hanen Program®):

  1. OWLing (observing, waiting and listening) for child to initiate. When we “tune in” to toddlers and let them start interactions, they communicate more.
  2. Reduce “on-demand speech” (e.g., “Say cup”) so a child can enjoy communication. Asking toddlers to say words takes the joy out of communication.
  3. Take turns to extend interactions. Turn-taking routines can be verbal (conversations) and non-verbal (playing catch, tickle games, patty-cake, etc.).
  4. Give choices (e.g., “Do you want juice or milk?”) while putting desired items next to the mouth may encourage children to communicate.
  5. Imitate and comment about child’s message. Imitate the child’s message and then add a comment. For example, imitate your child driving a car and then add language like, “Beep beep! Go car, go!”
  6. Pause routines and try not to anticipate needs. Stopping and waiting during familiar routines and turn-taking games can encourage a child to initiate communication.
  7. Change/adjust routines and “play the fool.” For example, only putting one shoe on a child before it’s time to go outside may prompt your child to communicate that he/she needs a shoe.
  8. Encourage attention to speech by using slow, exaggerated speech that matches a child’s language development. This means that adults use slow, simple sentences with correct grammar that capture a child’s attention.
  9. Interpret child’s message to help language development. If your toddler uses a gesture or words that are unintelligible, interpret the message with clear, slow speech. Example: Child: “Dow ooh.” Adult: “The cow says moo.”
  10. Expand the child’s message. When a child has started to use some words, we can expand their understanding of language by turning a child’s word or utterances into a clear sentence. We can also add language by talking about what is happening, what has happened or what will happen. When we expand upon the child’s messages, we add a variety of names, describing words, action words, feeling words, position words, social words, possession words, and question words) to help expand a child’s vocabulary. Example: Child: “ride bike.” Adult: “You ride a blue bike.”


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