A 2-year-old child is a wonder to behold. Week to week, and even day-to-day, it can seem that the face and body are constantly transforming, and your child’s unique personality really starts to come out.
But what if your 2-year-old is not talking yet? What if you’re not seeing all the dynamic changes and growth other parents are seeing in their 2-year-olds… or that you may have experienced with your previous children?
Such a language delay isn’t necessarily a sign of anything amiss. While we specialize in assisting children on the autism spectrum, please understand that just because your child is not talking yet, this does NOT mean your child has autism. It is a single symptom and can show up in any healthy child for any variety of reasons, including your child’s personality or preferences.
However, we always encourage you to discuss your child’s language development with your doctor at any routine check-ups… and if you start to worry that your 2 or 3 year old is not talking and want to encourage language development, here are seven steps you can take to help improve your child’s verbal communication:
Step One. Be clear on exactly how you want to help.
Most parents are clear on the final end result they’re looking for: a child that can communicate in clear, complete sentences. However children learn in stages, so be clear on what stage of verbal communication you want to focus on with your child. Are you working on clear single words, two-word phrases, conversation loops, or flexibility of the conversation topic?
Language is about relating to one another. It is not about words in and of themselves. In our own model of language development, we focus on helping children move from crying, whining, tantruming and using physical gestures as ways to communicate… to using the spoken word. We then continue to focus on moving children from single spoken words (spoken clearly), to expanded content (nouns, verbs, etc.) and conversation loops. We want our children to be able to communicate what they want, what they don’t want, what they feel and what they care about. Always remember that the goal is verbal relating and communicating, then break it down into the kind of verbal communication you want to focus on with your child right now.
Step Two. Create fun and interesting interactive activities with your child.
Children are more likely to talk about activities they’re actually experiencing in the moment. Before trying to get your child to talk, make sure that you and your child are involved in an engaging interactive activity together (e.g. blowing bubbles, tickles, building with blocks, singing songs, conversation, etc).
Once you and your child are having fun playing interactively, introduce your goal by adding your challenge into the game. For example, if you and your child are blowing bubbles, pause for a moment, and encourage your child to ask for more by saying, “More bubbles.” It’ll be much more enjoyable for your child and increase the likelihood that he/she will respond favorably. (NOTE: If your child is highly verbal and is being very controlling, then it’s best to wait on your challenge and find a time when they seem more flexible. The objective is to have fun together and then make your challenge.)
Step Three. Play the game for a few cycles.
Don’t rush or be quick to ask your child to work on the language goal you’ve set. Again, remember to prioritize the social interaction first and then work on the goal. Make the beginning of the activity fun and easy for your child, so they enjoy being social with you. Once you’ve completed the activity for 3-4 cycles, (e.g. blow bubbles 3-4 times; build the LEGO structure for 2-3 minutes; enjoy the topic of conversation your child is sharing, etc. until there is space for you to add and expand the conversation) move on to the next step.
Step Four. Stop and challenge.
Once both you and your child are enjoying the interactive game, stop (or pause) the activity and challenge using your language goal. Make your ‘ask’ enthusiastic! When your child begins to speak, show excitement about hearing their voice. If you believe in your child’s ability to grow in the way you’re challenging, your exuberance will come from a genuine place.
Step Five. Wait.
Give your child a chance to respond. Wait a minute, if they don’t begin talking. Don’t restart the interactive activity too quickly before allowing your child to respond. Give them a chance to process your challenge and then to respond. Find a balance between waiting and keeping the game going, and stay positive!
Step Six. Celebrate and keep the activity going.
If your child responds in any way to your challenge, let out a big cheer and quickly give them what they want. Do this while continuing to create a fun and interesting interaction. After a few more cycles of the activity, stop and challenge again (Step 4, above). Repeat this process for as long as the game continues. If your child doesn’t respond and appears to be losing motivation, restart the activity and continue to engage them in interactive play. After a few more play cycles, stop and challenge again. (Step 4, above)
Step Seven. Be persistent.
It’s important that you stay strong, passionate, at ease, and comfortable even if you don’t receive what you desire at the moment from your child. At all costs, avoid pushy or passive behavior. You will want to remain lovingly persistent. Do not give up!
Even if your child is not clearly communicating with you, he or she registers everything. Your child feels what you’re feeling, notices the expressions on your face and in your body language. Do your best to communicate and demonstrate love, acceptance, encouragement, and above all – permission for them to be who and how they are being in that moment.
You may need to challenge many times before your child responds to what you’re asking. That’s okay. Be determined. Even when your child doesn’t respond to a challenge, please know that you’re laying a foundation for future success, or with the next person who interacts with them.
For some children, language development is a process, like a complicated dance they’re learning. They might not learn by simply being told how the dance is performed, or even by being shown the dance. They need to practice engaging in the dance with their dance partner.
Be their dance partner.