Last week I fielded the same question from a few families and therapists who emailed me about kids who do not initiate. Remember that initiating means that a child takes the lead in an interaction or conversation. I wrote about it in this post, but I decided it’s a great topic for a podcast!
Initiating is important for language development because none of us can depend on other people to read our minds! We have to be able to ask for what we need.
Initiation is so important for language development that it’s actually included in one of the 11 skills all toddlers master before words emerge. (Read more about these skills in my therapy manual Let’s Talk About Talking.)
Before a late talker truly begins to initiate (meaning completely on his own), we can help him begin that process by the prompts or cues we use.
I found several infographics I like for a prompting hierarchy on Pinterest. The best ones were geared toward AAC users (including speech-generating devices), but they are highly relevant for verbal kids too. If that’s your thing, pop right over there and search Prompting Hierarchy or try these links here and here. (These are also the sources for the info below.)
If you’re more a list gal (like me!), here’s a quick and easy summary:
Wait to give a child time to initiate. Many times we jump right in there to talk too soon! If we wait a little bit, a toddler may surprise us with her own words! Hold back for at least a few seconds before you begin to talk yourself. That can be so hard for us sometimes! (Read more about the power of waiting .)
Create interest and motivation with an expectant pause. This means that you’ll use body language to “look” like you know a child is about to initiate. An SLP who was a guest on my podcast once called this your “Tell me face!” I love that! Lean forward with wide eyes, an open mouth, and maybe even gasp a little as if to say, “I know you’re going to talk…”
Add even more body language. Shrug your shoulders as if to say “What?” Or even use a hand motion to gesture to what you think the child wants or to display options. By doing this, you’re giving a visual cue without using any words yet. Again… silence can be a powerful motivator for a late talker.
Begin with a leading, but non-specific statement or question. My favorite thing is to say, “Hmmmm….” like I’m thinking. Lots of my little friends begin to imitate this. (It’s even cuter when you add a gesture like tapping your chin with your finger.) You could be a little more direct and say something like, “Now what?” or “What should we do now?”
If there’s still no response, move on to more direct cues. Try:
Requesting a response. Say to the child “Tell me what you want” or “You have to ask.” Here you’re not modeling what he should say, but you are clear that you expect him to try to tell you on his own.
Try a carrier phrase to get him started. Say “I want a…” and then pause to let him complete the sentence.
Some kids need a bigger hint with a phonemic cue. In everyday language that means the first sound of the word. For example, if a child wants to ask for milk, say, “I want mmm…”
If all else fails, model the word for him to imitate. It’s not initiation because you’re telling him what to say, but it is imitation, another key skill for late talkers to master! Kids have to hear words for a long, long time before they begin to try to say them.
Don’t feel like a failure if a child doesn’t begin to pop out words on his own right away. All talking begins with imitating and it’s “good enough” for many of our little friends for a while! (For more information about how to teach a child to imitate, check out my book Building Verbal Imitation Skills in Toddlers. If you’d like to see examples, get the CE course Steps to Building Verbal Imitation in Toddlers!)
Beyond cues, there are lots and lots of other ideas for teaching a toddler to initiate. Environmental sabotage or creating opportunities for a child to ask for things is my #1 strategy for helping a toddler master initiation. Read more about that A Little Frustration Can Go A Long Way. If you’d like more how-to instructions and ideas, there’s a whole chapter about initiating in my book Let’s Talk About Talking.