Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tips to Get 'em Talking - Facilitating Communication with Your Toddler

One of the many hats I wear is that of a speech-language pathologist. I have worked in what seems like every facet of my profession - from babies to senior citizens, from hospitals, to homes, to schools, to nursing homes, to rehab facilities.

When we moved to Illinois, I found myself in one niche of my job that I really enjoy - doing speech therapy in Early Intervention for the state of Illinois' 0-3 program. Maybe not every day, but very often I have friends or even people I have just met ask me questions about how to facilitate communication in a little person in their life.

So I decided to write up my most common suggestions that I give to parents and caretakers of our little people. Each kiddo is different, so this obviously isn't an individualized plan, but a lot of these strategies can be applied to many children in many scenarios.

Tips to Get 'Em Talking
Facilitating Communication with Your Toddler 

1. Give choices. All day, every day. Give choices! "Do you want milk or juice?" "Do you want up or down?" "Do you want the ball or the puzzle?" Not only does this teach the power of intent (I am indicating that I want to play with this instead of this by pointing/repeating/whatever), it also exposes them to vocabulary and gives them the false sense of control.

2. Narrate your day (and their day). Imagine your life was a movie, and someone is narrating everything you do. Well, you get to be the narrator! You can be Narrator Smurf, lucky you! When you hang out with a toddler all day, it is easy to not say much, or not say much that isn't baby talk (which IS important, so don't not do that!). So, just make a conscious effort to talk! Even if you don't know if they are understanding, you are exposing them to language and modeling communication.

3. Incorporate simple sign. Some parents are hesitant about using any kind of sign when their kiddo is not talking as much as they wish they would because they feel that it might hinder speech development. Actually, the opposite has proven to be the case! Using some simple signs, such as "more," "all done," or "open", can help your kiddo communicate some basic wants and needs before they are able to do so with words. Just because they aren't talking these wants and needs, doesn't mean it's not communication. Giving your kiddo a way to communicate that he wants "more" (juice), he is "all done" with whatever you are trying to get him to do, or to "open" this blasted lid that he can't get open can majorly reduce frustrations and give your kiddo confidence to communicate.

4. Have babble conversations with your little cherub.  Timmy runs up to you, super excited about something, of which you can understand nothing of what he just said. Do your best to get an inkling of whatever they are talking about and talk about it " Oh wow you must be so happy that you saw that dog outside! Let's go take a look." or (if you truly have no idea what he's talking about) "You are so happy, and I love when you tell me about it." Along these lines, if your kiddo is making some sense, but not completely ("askjalfhoug cat awfongajng") you can repeat back to them what they are trying to say ("you see the cat in the book. The cat is so soft and furry!"). This helps with confidence and showing your kiddo that their attempts to communicate have purpose.

5. Go to town with sounds and noises. Animal sounds (meow, ruff, roar, neigh, ma, baa baa), vehicle sounds (vroom, beep beep, honk), anything with an onamonapia (pop, boom, zap, buzz). The pressure is off to imitate when it's something fun, like a lion roar or a bubble going "pop!" A lot of times when kiddos are intimidated by imitating other words, they will imitate a sound without even realizing it. "Look at the cow! The cow says moo, moo, moo! MOOO!"

6. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Sometimes parents/kiddos are disappointed when I bring a couple of the same toys each week when I come to play with their kiddo. The reason why I do this (other than the fact that I have to buy my own material and I'm not made of money!) is that repetition and exposure of core vocabulary is important for not only comprehension but also development of spontaneous vocabulary. Therefore, I like to play A LOT of Mr. Potato Head (body parts and basic clothing vocabulary), animal puzzles (animal names, animal sounds), and play food (food vocabulary). Repetition also teaches them to know what to expect, and this routine play can be comforting to a new communicator.

7. Use developmentally-appropriate toys. Think about what you played with as a child. In a very technologically-advanced age, it is easy to give a 1 or 2 year old a tablet. While some people may disagree with me on this (and I value your opinion so I don't mean to offend), technology-heavy toys can do a good job at engaging your child, but the BEST way to teach your child to communicate is by YOU communicating with your child. Not a TV show (even if it is educational) or a ipad app (even if it does teach him shapes and colors). My favorite go-to developmental toys are Mr. Potato Head, any of the MANY wooden Melissa and Doug puzzles, and board books. Oh, and play food and baby dolls.

8. Insist on communication (of some form) to get what they want. Don't ask too much of your kiddo, but there comes a time where you do not automatically fill up his sippy cup with juice unless he indicates he wants you to do so. Warning: This action from a parent can cause a major temper tantrum from your little angel who is used to you anticipating his every want and need. But --- if he doesn't have to communicate to get his needs and wants met, guess what? He's not going to. So, buckle up, and start setting some communication expectations. You can start with signing "more," or pointing, or answering yes or no. Whatever you know your kid can do. But if they are going to get a cookie (or whatever thing is desired), you best believe they are going to communicate to get it. No communication, no cookie. (Enter major temper tantrum here.) Once the kiddo understands the expectation of communication (and in turn, the function of communication) the lightbulb goes on, and things get easier.

There are other things that you can do to help your kiddo develop communication. But here are some things to get you started! Feel free to post comments and questions!


  1. I have not commented before because I didn't know it was this easy. This was great.

  2. I love your ideas! Thanks for sharing.