#280 Skills Toddlers Must Use Before Words Emerge – # 3 Building Attention


In the sixth show in my series 11 Skills Toddlers Must Use BEFORE Words Emerge, we’ll be talking about the next skill which is:


Listen here:

Learning to pay attention to things of interest around him and to regularly include other people during those experiences is a critical skill in helping a child learn to communicate.

This skill (and the next one – demonstrating joint attention) are are a natural extension of the first two skills we’ve covered in this series which were responding to things in the environment and responding to people. (In case you missed the previous shows, links are at the bottom of this page!)

Some of you may be wondering how an attention span relates to learning to understand words and talk. There are several reasons I could cite, but the most important one is this:

A child needs another person to teach him how to talk. It’s impossible for young children to learn language on their own. Until he can learn to settle down enough (or arouse herself if she seems disengaged or “flat”) to listen to the person speaking, a toddler is never going to be in an optimal state for making the connection between words and their meanings. He or she won’t be able to “crack the code” for understanding and using words because he’s not able to attend to the person who is doing the teaching.

Please don’t mistake my use of the word “teaching” here for a formal process such as a classroom where you expect a toddler to remain seated obediently while you present flashcard after flashcard after flashcard… That’s unrealistic – and completely inappropriate – from a developmental standpoint! Not to mention, it’s just plain boring to most toddlers, even those with no problems learning to communicate.

I’m talking about teaching words as you play together, snuggle together, and do all of the mundane things that must be done in a day – eating, taking a bath, changing diapers, cleaning up messes, getting dressed, taking a ride, shopping, you name it. The truth is… you can teach words anytime, anywhere.

As I said in the last show, if your child isn’t doing these things, the good news is…


Strategies we can implement at home to help a child improve his attention span include the things we discussed in this show:

  1. Many times we have to get a child “warmed up” before he or she can play with us for any length of time. The reason can vary from child to child, but most of the time a child who doesn’t seem to have any kind of attention span falls between one of two extremes – too busy to pay attention or too flat to seem to care about what you’re doing.For both kinds of kids, employ sensory strategies to help a busy kid calm down or a flat kid rev up. Movement activities work best for each of these situations. Running, chasing, jumping on the bed or off the couch, bouncing even in your lap. Social games with movement are so much fun for toddlers including games such as chase, “Get ‘Cha” games or something a little more structured such as Ring Around the Rosies.
  2. Body-on-body contact can also be very calming and regulating. You can hold a child on your lap, but for more active children who may resist this closeness initially, give them a game to accomplish the same goal. We discussed lots of examples during the show.
  3. For kids who will play for a minute or two with you and then quickly want to leave, use the “one more” rule. Listen for an explanation.
  4. BEST Advice for Parents for developing an attention span with your child. Keep your little one in close proximity to you all day. Don’t let them stay alone in their rooms or wander around the house, even if it seems like that’s all they want to do. Kids have to be social to talk! That begins by being with other people and learning to like being with other people, most of the time. Take them with you as move to different parts of your home.
  5. For some kids, better attention spans really do begin with “unplugging.” While we know that some apps and DVDs can be beneficial for children, overuse of technology is associated with teaching “scan and shift” behaviors. Listen above for this explanation in this show.

I’ve written a whole therapy manual about helping a child learn to respond and participate. The book is Teach Me To Play WITH You which provides step-by-step instructions for 50+ little social games and easy play routines for toddlers who don’t consistently respond to other people. If you’d like something that purely focuses on teaching specific language goals, then check out my therapy manual for just that – Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual. SLPs and moms tell me they use this resource every single day to plan activities for late talking toddlers.

Have you missed the other shows in this series? No worries! Listen here:




#278 Responds to Things in the Environment

#279 Responds to People

OR get the shows free on iTunes. Just search Teach Me To Talk with Laura and Friends in the iTunes stores.

Ready for the next show? Click here!

Questions? Comments? I’d love to hear from you! Leave me a reply below!

Until next week…. Laura

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