(Edited with the addition of #9 on March 18. 2008.)
Here’s what I’ve learned, the hard way unfortunately, about behaviors that do not help babies and toddlers learn to talk. All of these are helpful for not only parents, but also professionals working with young children. Most of these are common sense, but worth repeating.
1. The adult interacting with the child is (yawn) boring.
As even two-year-olds know, interacting with a boring person is at best a waste of time and at worst, well, just plain boring. Who can get worked up about that? Certainly not a curious toddler who wants to see what’s making that cool noise outside the window or see if he can really get his toe into and out of air conditioning vent over and over. Get fired up! Act silly! Join in the fun and PLAY! You have to make yourself interesting, make that more interesting, than anything else in your babies’ world routinely for him to want to be with you and hopefully learn from you. When you can’t get a kid to interact, up the FUN FACTOR, and he’ll usually want to play. If you would not be embarrassed by having a neighbor or your boss suddenly drop by and see you playing with your kids, then you’re probably not doing it right.
2. The adult interacting with the child is too (YIKES!) strict.
I actually heard this complaint last week. A wonderful friend of mind who is a developmental interventionist (For those of you who don’t know, this is a preschool teacher with a masters degree in early childhood education.) told me that the speech pathologist who is also seeing one of her clients actually bragged to a mom that she’s “strict.” Hmmmm. There’s an interesting choice of words. I’m not sure that kind of attitude would ever entice a communicatively-challenged kid to play. This goes back to the fun factor. Strict and fun do not usually co-exist. Granted I do not allow children to do anything to repeatedly hurt me, injure themselves or another person, or purposefully damage property, but other than that, I don’t really have “rules.” I have heard of therapists who ”refuse to chase kids.” They don’t know what fun and opportunities they’re missing! Some days my 41-year-old back and knees don’t particularly feel like chasing kids, but once I’ve used all my other tricks and realize that this kid needs to move, I am up off the floor and ready to play the game. (Besides, my 41-year- old thighs could use the exercise!)
Before all of you disciplinarian moms start firing off retaliatory comments to me about maintaining order and control in your homes, let me interject a quick note. I said “too” strict. This means establishing unrealistic expectations for your child. Let me give you an example. While I was listening to a radio talk show the other day, the speaker told an account of a mom who in an effort to make sure her “non-compliant child did not willfully disobey again” (that was the direct quote), she really “gave him one.” Although the speaker relaying this story did not come out and say “spanking,” I assumed that’s what was meant. I eagerly listened for the report of the “crime” since this punishment seemed harsh. Turns out this was a mom talking about spanking her ten-month old for looking at her (the “willfully disobedient part”) as she told him “no” while he continued to pull books off the shelf. Pulling books off a shelf is a developmentally appropriate activity for a ten-month-old! While a ten-month-old should be in the process of learning to understand and obey “no,” his continued persistence in this activity hardly signified willful disobedience. Actually even the most “advanced” ten-month-old is incapable of the purposeful cognitive manipulation of his mother. Anybody who tells you that he is needs to revisit the topic of Piaget and other “cognitive development” researchers and experts.
On the opposite side of this argument, I will also say that you must use developmentally -appropriate disciplinary strategies beginning at a very young age. For a typically developing ten-month old in the situation above, the mother should shake her head and say, “No No” while physically moving the child away to another location (A disciplinary strategy known as redirection), and/or showed him a more acceptable and interesting alternative (Another technique called distraction). The mom may also want to place the books she doesn’t want destroyed on a shelf out of reach (A technique called using your common sense!). The same disciplinary techniques should also be used for the 2 1/2 year old who is delayed and functioning at a 12-month-old level. While some parents would try to use time-out, a recommended technique for a typically developing two-year-old, it would not be appropriate for this guy since he doesn’t understand things at a 2 1/2 year old level. Make sense to you?
I have seen too many well-meaning parents embrace the role of disciplinarian to such a degree that they forget the most important thing. You have to loveyour child! Don’t get so caught up in “making him mind” that you lose sight of enjoying him everyday, even on the hard days. This connection with your kid is what will drive his motivation to communicate with you. His concept of you needs to include how much you adore him and how you light up every time he comes into the room, not just how you take care of him, and especially not how you constantly tell him “no.” Fall in love with your kid (if you’re not already) and be sure to act like it everyday!
3. The adult follows the kid around narrating what he or the adult are doing without any sense that the kid knows, or cares for that matter, what you’re talking about.
This also includes other practices that are equally unproductive and don’t challenge that particular kid’s attention or motivation to interact and communicate. This could mean that an adult sits in a chair across the room and repeatedly calls in a monotone voice a kid who won’t sit still for 10 seconds, let alone a whole book. ”Brandon. Come over here and sit down so we can read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” Do you think Brandon is going to stop his preferred activity of climbing onto the back of the couch and jumping off for that? Even if the adult switched gears a little and narrated, “Brandon is climbing on the couch. Brandon is jumping off the couch. Brandon is climbing on the couch. Blah. Blah. Blah.” Does this capture his attention? Even if it did, don’t you think his likely response would be, “I’ll tell you where to jump!”
This kind of behavior, talking on and on incessantly when your child is not paying attention, is another version of boring. Lots of speech pathologists and well-meaning parents do this. Many of them simply talk, talk, talk all day long about everything without any regard for the child’s processing abilities. We all know that kids need to hear language in order to learn to talk, but we need to give kids language at an appropriate level, one they can understand. If a kid isn’t able to follow one-step directions pretty consistently, a parent should not continue to talk in paragraph-length utterances all day. Boil it down. Use lots of single words and short phrases. Give him small narratives for his familiar routines, but don’t address your language-delayed child in the same language you use to talk to your best friend or your 11 year old. He’s going to tune you out. In his mind you sound like the teacher from Charlie Brown. “Wah - Wah - Wah- Wah.” I hear you talking, but I have no idea what you’re saying!
Narrating your and his actions is good advice for homes where parents are not by nature “talkers” themselves, but for most families, and especially ones like you who would go to the trouble of investigating this web-site, they’ve been there, done that. If just hearing enough language were all it takes for a child to learn to talk, chances are he would have already picked it up. You need a new strategy (and likely a new therapist if this is the best or only advice you’ve received!).
4. The adult allows the child to get stuck in negative, unproductive routines to the exclusion of more meaningful play and interaction.
This includes repetitive behaviors such as pushing lights and toys on and off repeatedly, excessive TV watching, repetitively opening/closing doors, excessively spinning objects, or even physical movements like hand-wringing and arm-flapping. These are often called stereotypic and/or self-stimulatory behaviors, and often times these are characteristics of children with autism and other sensory processing disorders. While all of these behaviors can’t totally be eliminated in some children, you should make an effort to try to redirect them to more purposeful play. If that doesn’t work many experts recommend to get them to let you join in their play to make it interactive.
Our oldest son started to flap his arms when he became upset or excited at age two. Rather than let this persist into a habit, we chose to treat this behaviorally by redirecting him to clap. Again his sensory issues were not serious or this need so great that he continued much longer after our efforts to intervene, but I am certainly glad we didn’t wait until he had done this for months or years before we decided to take action. Know that this is sometimes a serious battle for children since their sensory system needs may be getting met in a way that is “better” for them with this than any other behavior/activity you can come up with to replace the undesirable one. An occupational therapy assessment may be warranted with a therapist who is trained in assessing and managing sensory integration differences.
5. The adult provides no constructive routines for the child.
If you think this happens only in uneducated families, you’re wrong. I actually see this mistake more often in families with demanding schedules. Baby gets lost in the shuffle. Mom may own a business and work from home. She’s there, and she’s managing to feed and change her toddler throughout the day, but there’s not much interaction between customer calls and e-mails. Dad may work nights and sleep during the day, but the family can’t afford daycare on their already stretched income, so the baby is at home doing “nothing” or sleeping most of the day while Dad sleeps. The same can be said for many daycare situations. This ranges from the family home provider who is taking care of too many kids to the fancy-named daycare with women barely out of their teens who are proclaimed “teachers” and left to manage in a room full of under (and over) stimulated children with a couple of baskets of broken toys. Don’t kid yourself. Your child is not going to learn if there’s no opportunity. He needs predictable and interesting events throughout his day most every day. Spending three hours a day in front of the TV, two hours napping, one hour driving in the van for carpool, and another hour roaming around the house while Mommy “has her time” and talks on the phone doesn’t cut it. Set a schedule with several slots for one-on-one Mommy and baby time when you plan to be engaged in stimulating activities with your baby. The phone can ring. The dishes can wait.
6. The adult in charge of most of the child’s day has expectations that are too low.
This also happens for many children involved in daycare, either in or out of the home. (Believe me when I say that I am not knocking working moms since I too belong to this category.) I have worked with many families whose parents are gravely concerned about their child’s lack of ability to communicate, only to be told by the grandmother or nanny when a parent isn’t there during my visit that they don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Many people honestly believe that children don’t talk until they are 3. So even when mom and dad are doing a pretty good job of following through at night and on weekends, the person who is responsible for the baby for most of his waking hours, still doesn’t get it. Consequently, neither does the kid. Judiciously monitor your child’s activities when you are not there. Take the time to painstakingly explain to your child’s daycare provider your concerns and rally their commitment to your child’s development. If your attempts are not met with cooperation, please explore other childcare options. It’s that important.
7. Adults are more concerned about ”how” a child talks than what he says.
There is nothing more frustrating for me as a clinician as when a child says a new word and his mother (or another significant other) chimes in to “correct” his pronunciation of the word. “Not nilt, it’s MMMMILLKKKKK. Now watch my mouth. It’s mmmmilllkkkk.” I’ll look over at the kid, and especially if he’s smart, he and I both get a look like someone has just burst our bubble. Over-correcting a kid’s articulation, or the way he says a word, is unnecessary and unwelcomed in the new talker phase. His efforts to communicate should be recognized and appreciated. You can of course model the correct word, but in a non-confrontational way. “Yes! Here’s milk.” There will be plenty of time to teach new speech sounds and correct his errors, but a late talker’s first word attempts are not it. Many mothers worry that if we don’t correct the mistakes that “He’ll learn to say it that way.” Chances are greater that the child is going to correct those early sound errors much more quickly if his initial efforts to talk are met with enthusiasm rather than correction. He’s going to be more motivated to continue to try with adults who reward his attempts, even if they are off-target. Use the carrot, not the stick.
One word of caution - don’t repeat the child’s errors to him and begin to label something incorrectly unless you’re prepared to work really hard to “undo” this later. You’ll not only have to correct how he says it, but in a way, how he “thinks” it since you’ll have reinforced the mistake by having him hear it over and over. (When our children were toddlers, they all three had such cute misarticulations for words that they “stuck,” at least for a while, in our family. Our most memorable ones were Jonathan combining his favorite character from a song and favorite restaurant to proclaim ”Mc O’Donalds,” calling my face cream “Earl of Oohlay,” and ”Santoe” for Santa. Tyler called his older brother Jonathan “Nah-Nah” with such Asian-sounding vowels that we thought he was imitating our very loud next-door neighbors from China. My all time favorite was Macy’s very original version of shampoo, ”hairshpoo.” I still write it that way occasionally on my shopping lists just for laughs. Do as I say, not as I do!)
8. Adults are too focused on pre-academic concepts such as colors words, numbers, and letters.
So many times when I start therapy with a new kid, I notice that mom and dad spend lots of time getting him to try to say names of letters, count, or identify colors. It always makes me think, “What about the really important words - milk, cookie, shoe, bye-bye, ball, Mama, Dada?” What about the words he really needs to say in the course of a day to communicate his wants and needs? The toy industry is partly to blame for this misinformation since so many infant toys focus on these skills. All of those concepts are things your child will need to learn during his preschool years, but not at 1 or 2, and certainly not before he learns to understand and say words that are more important.
After I give this lecture to some parents, they balk and exclaim that that’s what their child is interested in, sometimes the only thing he’s interested in. This might be true for some children, but it’s usually not a sign that the baby is going to be a child prodigy, whether it be an artist for those kids who only say color words, a writer for the ABC-obsessed, or a math teacher for the kid who can recognize the number at the bottom of a page in a book, but is still not able to point to the picture of the car or dog when asked. Actually an obsessivefascination with letters or numbers or anything that’s highly visual in nature is characteristic of children with autism. The professional term for this is called “hyperlexia.” So when a parent proudly exclaims that their kid must be a genius because he can read and recognize signs (like the Golden Arches of “McDonald’s” or “Stop”), but then an early intervention team is called in because he still can’t communicate his basic needs and isn’t talking very much other than identifying letters and counting, it makes me suspect that there’s much more going on than a language delay.
My advice to you is to emphasize and teach words that are meaningful for everyday life and leave the alphabet and counting for preschool. There will be plenty of time for this later, after your child has learned to ask for things he needs and can carry on a real conversation.
9. The adult enrolls a child in daycare, a play group, or a mother’s day out program thinking that exposure to other children will help a child learn to talk.
Being around other children does not make a child magically begin to say words. Children talk to adults first, not other children. This is especially true for children with social communication issues. If your child is not noticing other children or seeking out interaction with them or other adults, putting him in a daycare situation is likely to make things WORSE, not better. The only exception would be a special preschool program where the staff are teachers and therapists specifically trained to teach children with language delays. A mother’s day out program staffed by volunteer mothers or paid workers (even the friendly “grandmother” types) should be used for childcare purposes only. If parents need a break or need time to run errands, by all means use these programs, but don’t kid yourself. Being in a room full of same age peers is not conducive to learning language when it’s not happened yet at home during 1:1 time with Mom and Dad.
So there’s my top list of unproductive strategies for teaching kids to talk. Avoid these mistakes and counter them with strategies from the What Works section. If you have found other detrimental techniques, please feel free to let us know in the comments section.