Help! My Child isn’t Talking. 6 Strategies to Help Inspire Communication

It’s really normal for parents to worry that their child isn’t talking soon enough, or as well as they should be.

As your child grows,  so does their capacity to communicate.  While every child develops at a different rate, having a few tools at your disposal can really help enhance speech progression.

Here are six strategies I personally use (and recommend!) all day, every day to get kids talking:

1) Encouraging talking by withholding

Sounds strange right? But it works! Withholding is the absolute best tool in my speech therapy tool box to get children talking.

You want a child to communicate? You have to give them a reason by enticing them with something that is highly motivating like their favorite cookie or a brand new toy.

Then--- simply restrict access to it.

If your child is constantly grabbing your iPhone you can hold that iPhone out of reach then give them the words to help them ask for it.

Make sure the item is visible but not accessible without your help. Try using a clear container or tupperware so your child is able to see all the fun going on inside but they need to communicate with you in order to ask for help.

When you start increasing the expectation (i.e. you expect your child to use words instead of whining), then your child will start understanding how they are able to quickly get their needs met by just simply communicating!

2) Sabotage your child

Sound like cruel and unusual punishment? Rest assured... it’s totally safe and a lot of fun if you get it right.

It works by deliberately interfering with a routine activity in order to elicit communication.

So, for example, if you ALWAYS read a story at night you could try holding the book upside down or you could start a familiar book on the wrong page. 

The most important thing is that you pause and wait patiently for a response, and always wait longer than you think you need to.

Another great time to use this technique is when you’re getting dressed. You could do something silly like put your shoes on before your socks or put your pants on your head.

Alternatively, if you child asks for a cookie, give them a crayon! Then wait for the response.

Children LOVE this game and it will always get them talking and giggling.

3) Imitation

Help your child repeat certain sounds so you can get them talking sooner.

I know this seems like a no brainer but we can help children start imitating actions even before they are able to imitate speech and talking. This can be as simple as taking turns clapping or activating a toy that makes noise.

Once children start babbling you can focus on early developing sounds like "b" (as in "ball") or "m" (as in “mommy”) .

One of my favorites is saying the “m” sound during meals. Eat a bite of food and then say “MMMMM” and help your baby say it too.

4) Giving Choices

One of the best pieces of wisdom I received during a clinical rotation in graduate school was this:

Give a child two options; both of which you (the therapist) can live with.

EXAMPLE:

“Do you want to walk by yourself or do you want to hold my hand?”

“Do you want to put the toys away in the bag or in the box?”

Both choices means the child ends up doing what you need them to do, but offering choices means the child has to respond beyond a simple “yes” or “no” answer. 

This gives a sense of autonomy and independence that empowers children to make their own decisions. Children are happier when they are able to decide what they want to eat, where they want to go and what they might like to play with.

5) Open-Ended Questions

Frequently caregivers get stuck asking lots of yes/no questions.

EXAMPLE:

“Are you hungry?”

“Do you want some apples?”

“Are you all done?”

These all start and end with a single word… yes or no.

It’s important to help children expand beyond single words so that they become practiced at formulating their own thoughts into phrases and sentences.  Try pausing your child’s favorite television show and ask thought-provoking questions such as “I wonder what will happen next?” or “How do you think he is feeling?” and then pause to see what your child has to say.

There’s another great strategy that I use with children who are learning how to answer WH questions such as Who/What/When/Where.

If I ask the question:“Where does an elephant live?” and I don’t get a response, I can follow up with two choices in order to give some context and encourage a response.

“Does he live at the zoo or on the farm?”.

It is important to always put the correct answer first. Children tend to repeat the last option that you give so this is a good way to test if they understand what you’re asking, and see whether they are able to answer appropriately.

6) Strategic Pausing

One of the most useful tools to get kids talking is strategic pausing, and it’s something that I struggle with immensely!

Patiently waiting while you pause at strategic points in conversation is a great way to facilitate language development and encourage talking.

For example, if I’m looking at a book with a child I could say: 

“I see….”

and then wait.

Or:

“I wonder….” 

You can use this with repetitive phrases like, “Ready, set….” and your child can say “GO!”. It's also useful during songs, like this: “Old McDonald had a…”. 

Strategic pausing is especially important when asking children questions… we have to give plenty of time to process what we’ve said and then  formulate a response.

The easiest way to remember these strategies is to embed them into something you do every day and your child will start picking up on your routines and filling in the blanks for you. 

Over to you

Does your child struggle with spontaneous communication? Do they seems to be stuck using mostly nouns or the "I want" phrase? Let me know what you’re finding difficult with in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!

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