Turn Taking in Toddlers… It’s More than Sharing Toys!


When I ask a parent, “How does your child take turns?” sometimes they think I’m referring to sharing toys or playing a board game.

That’s not what we’re looking for with a 2-year-old!

Let’s get real – sharing anything, especially a prized toy, is darn near impossible at that age!

And board games… forget it! A child is more likely to eat the pieces or run away with the spinner than sit and play!

By turn taking, I’m referring to reciprocity, or that back and forth flow, we all have during interactions with another person.

Turn Taking Can Be Hard!

In some toddlers with language delays, learning the turn taking piece is especially challenging. Sometimes a child knows how to respond when you begin an interaction with him, but he doesn’t know how to begin or how to keep that process going. Or a child knows how to initiate a request, especially when he really, really wants something, but he doesn’t know what to do beyond that. After one “round” of interaction with someone else, everything stops.

In each of these cases, toddlers have poor turn taking skills which means they don’t understand how to keep communication going. Many experts, such as Dr. Stanley Greenspan and his work with “communication circles,” have devoted their entire careers investigating the emergence of turn taking and emphasizing the importance of this skill.

Toddlers can be expert turn takers before they begin to use words. A nonverbal toddler takes turns by doing something, anything, that’s purposeful and directed toward the person who is sharing interaction. A turn can be a sound, an action or gesture, or even an expectant look and pause as if to say, “Go on,” or, “Tell me more.” Many late talkers develop a “default” way of turn taking before true words emerge.

Right now I’m working with a new little friend, a darling nonverbal four year old, who is really honing her ability to take turns. It’s started with the gestures she already knows – smacking her lips for kisses and doing her “signs” for love and hug. She would do a couple of rounds with me then stop. Over the last three visits, we’ve expanded it to banging on the table, waving, clapping, a sucking noise she’s started, and a growl-like noise. Up to 7 or 8 turns each! See? It sounds pretty simple – figure out what a child can do and then get them to do it over and over so they “master” these new skills while you’re teaching them turn taking.

This milestone is critical in helping a child become conversational. Many toddlers who are talking, but not communicating, have not acquired the ability to take a turn. This makes their language development feel “stalled.” They don’t understand how to consistently respond beyond the first turn and interaction ends.

Questions to determine if a toddler takes turns:

  • Does a child understand that communication is a two-way street?
  • When she plays a little game with you, does she try to keep it going?
  • Does she try to respond to your questions, even without words?
  • Does he take turns nonverbally during exchanges with you like giving 5, offering you a drink from a cup, trading toys, etc…?

Lots of late talkers who already have a confirmed diagnosis have difficulty with turn taking. Here are a few examples in the next couple of paragraphs:

Toddlers with cognitive and receptive language delays have trouble with turn taking because they don’t understand what you’ve said to them, and they don’t know how to say, “I didn’t get that. Can you please say it again or reword it for me?” Because they can’t ask for clarification, they don’t respond at all, and the conversation dies, unless the adult is persistent.

Many times, a child with autism doesn’t know how to keep an exchange going with verbal or nonverbal responses. He may be more interested in objects than people, and he’s certainly going to have difficulty with turn taking because there may not be that internal desire to connect with others beyond getting an immediate need met.

Children with sensory processing and regulatory differences may have difficulty with turn-taking because you “lose” them. If they’re sensory seekers, they may be ready to move on to something else. When they’re sensory avoiders, they may need to “shut down” a bit to process what you’ve already said or to regulate internally.

If you’d like more information on how to get turn-taking going, I can help you with that! Turn-taking is one of the 11 skills all toddlers master before words emerge and you can find lots of cute activities and everyday games to help a child begin to take turns in my therapy manual Let’s Talk About Talking.

That’s all for today!




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