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What Doesn’t Work – Unproductive Strategies For Helping Toddlers Learn To Talk

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.

  1. The adult interacting with the child is too (YIKES!) strict.

I actually heard this complaint last week. A wonderful friend of mine who is a developmental interventionist (For those of you who don’t know, this is a preschool teacher with a master’s 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,” is 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 love your child! Don’t get so caught up in “making him mind” that you lose sight of enjoying him every day, 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 every day!

  1. 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!).

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.” 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!)

  1. 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 obsessive fascination 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.

  1. 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.

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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.

 

Laura

11 Comments

  1. Kate on January 31, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    I am a developmental therapist and have worked with many speech therapists over the years. I know from experience that Laura is in a league of her own. She is both well educated and possesses unparalleled natural instincts. I am thrilled that even more families and therapists will now be able to benefit from Laura’s wealth of knowledge and experience. She truly does practice what she preaches.

  2. Kathy on April 17, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    This all makes so much sense to me! I wish you had been around to help me feel less like a goof when I was dealing with my son’s teachers and other adults. They mostly treated me like I was nuts when I did these things. Great web site!

  3. Tahna on August 9, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Thanks so much for this. I’ve made a few of these mistakes (especially #3 and #4)
    I had a speech therapist tell me that the way to get my child “caught up” would be to enroll him in daycare. Yeah, I wasn’t impressed. I KNEW he would spend all his time off playing by himself, and the “teachers” at the daycare would be more than happy to let him, because it would be less work for them.
    Anyway, thank you. Your site is so helpful!

  4. Dee on August 13, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    Wow! Thank you Laura for creating this website. I find it really insightful. I can trully relate to this article and it opened my eyes in so many level. I have a 2 year old son who grunts, points and talk 1 word at time when he wants to and I was a bit worried. Not only that, he loves his pacy and wouldn’t let go at times. Now that I have you to help me by reading your examples and suggestions, I thing my son will be okay. Thanks again!

  5. Laura on August 13, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    Dee – Glad we can help! Laura

  6. ramya on July 15, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    Hi Laura,

    I cannot thank you enough for the so simple and yet so on- mark and helpful tips you have been offering to us. My little son is 3.5 years old. At 3, he was considered to have “adequate” talking skills for his age, but the pediatrician was not too happy. Now at 3.5, he seems to be improving all time, but still, makes some statements that are jumbled ex: tree is on squirrel. He also is yet to learn “I dont know” and ends up saying random things if he doesn’t know answers. Ex, at school he as asked to point to his sunscreen, but we had not given him one. So instead of saying don’t know he had said yes when asked if a random sunscreen is his, and he was asked the question for multiple sun screens all with response yes. Sometimes when I ask what is this, he says just red .. for a red truck. Then I prompt him with red dress?? then he says no mommy, its a red truck.

    I also figured he does better one on one instead of group instructions. He does not form friendships either and currently his only friends are a few cousins who he has known pretty much from birth.

    I am a little lost on whether my little guy needs some help since he is improving on his own. I have an evaluation scheduled, but a bit worried about the outcome “labeling”, given most of these have no “cure”, and are “quirks”. I live in bay. Is there a way I can just reach to a social skills building group or speech therapists without going for a diagnosis? Could you please advise on anything else I could do to help my little own get more communicative and social (at least to make 2 friends on his own)?

    • Laura on July 22, 2015 at 6:17 pm

      Hi Ramya – You can certainly see an SLP or any therapist without having a formal diagnosis. I would definitely recommend that too because you want to be sure you’re doing everything you can to help him. As far as social skills go, an SLP can help you navigate that and see exactly what he needs help with. Is he not making progress with relationships because of the interaction issues, play skills, language skills, or all of the above? Does he respond when you give him “cues” for peer interaction? Can he initiate? Does he notice other little kids? You’ll do best with someone who can help you tease all of that out and who can look at him objectively too. Sometimes we’re so blinded by the love we have for our children that we don’t see the big picture with them and can miss pieces they need help with. I love that you already know that and want to see someone. Get on the phone and make some calls asking about their experience with treating social skills since that’s what you want some help with for him. Good luck to you!! Laura

  7. Judith A. Cornette on May 11, 2016 at 11:15 am

    I am an SLP – My daughter just purchased a pre-school. The children range in age from 6 months to 6 years. I am going to be conducting some workshops for the staff. I of course will be focusing on individualization, routine techniques and the importance of reciprocal play, but also recognize the need for actual materials and reproducible resources – any suggestions?

  8. Jeanne on November 1, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    This is great info , I babysit, my great nephew , he is now 2 , only says mama ,points to things .I am the crazy great aunt ,I’m happy to know I am doing all these things you say , I never stop singing or talking to him , I play the piano and sing to him , he sometimes starts to babble at the piano .
    Mom is a quiet person , I hope I can’t get a word out soon 🙂

  9. Rebekka Paul on November 7, 2016 at 7:23 am

    Hi there,
    my daughter is almost 2.5 years old and isn’t talking yet. After a check-up at the doctor’s, we found out that she had a big accumulation of water behind her eardrums and therefore had poor hearing. She got tubes in to take care of it. Now we are in the process of getting her ready to talk. She loves playing with the stacking cups and I take the time to play with her. I started to do some signing with her as well. I am also enrolled in speech therapy in a group setting but tomorrow is the last session. I am just curious as to what else I can do to encourage her to talk.

  10. Jana O'Connor on July 5, 2017 at 4:12 pm

    I’m a Speech-Language Pathologist and I’m LOVING all your materials, Laura! This list was so spot-on and such a fun read. I think I might start calling it “hairshpoo” from now on, in fact 🙂

    I really appreciate how you can call it like it is and be frank about what is NOT helpful to teach language.

    Thanks for everything! Your website and podcast and manuals have been invaluable to me in transitioning into private practice with toddler/preschool kids.

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