A good friend, an SLP with an Early Stages Program in her school district shared some tips for parents on fostering language development in young children. If your child is cared for by other adults during the day, do share this with your child’s caregivers as well.
Helping a child develop age appropriate language can be an overwhelming task. Some caregivers may feel unsure of how to best support their child. Other caregivers may feel anxious and try to teach their child too much too soon. Helping a young child develop language requires some patience, but as long as your interactions are EVEN STEVEN, your child’s language will progress. Here are some tips to support your young child develop language.
Equally match your child
Meet your child where he/she is. Is your child gesturing more than talking? Start there. Use gestures to teach your child and then pair them with one or two words. Is your child using only a few words together to express ideas? Speak to your child using very simple sentences and then slowly expand the length of what you say.
Match your child’s play too. Does your child love rolling a car around on the floor? Make that your favorite too. Get down on the floor and match your child’s play. Children are egocentric, meaning they love themselves! If you imitate your child, he/she will be more likely to engage with you for longer.
View the world through your child’s eyes
Enter into your child’s world. What is he/she thinking? Start by observing. Find what object or action attracts your child’s attention. How does your child interact with the object? Your child’s interest could be as simple dumping water out of a cup and watching it spill on the sidewalk. Start by imitating your child’s actions and vocalizations. Provide your child with the gestures, sounds or words that accompany his/her play. For example, you could shout “Uh oh!” and make a silly face when the water gets dumped. If he/she is ready to say more, you could say, “Water’s all gone!” and shrug your shoulders. Be your child’s playmate, and he/she will want to communicate with you.
Show your child that you’re a whole lot of fun to be around and that you are having fun with him/her. Providing praise through words is a good start, but actions can speak louder than words. Use your face, body, and intonation to praise your child for attempted communication and play interactions. Fist pumps paired with silly sounds, smiles, winks, and hugs are great ways to reward your child for communicating as best as he/she can. Try to be more interesting and intriguing than any other distraction in your child’s environment, and he/she will keep coming back for more learning.
Nix the commands and questions
People learn best when they are motivated. Being told what to do and what to say all the time isn’t very motivating. Try to limit your directions and questions to one or two every five minutes. Instead, comment on what you and your child are doing. On the flipside, if you aren’t talking enough and your child seems to dominate the situation, take the lead more. You should lead about half of the interactions, and your child should lead the other half.
Sing and talk about what you see
Children, like us, love to sing and dance. Songs build attention, imitation, vocabulary, language, and early literacy skills, like rhyming. Check out youtube for ideas. Also, talk to your child about things that your child is seeing and doing. Flashcards are fine, but they don’t provide a deeper understanding of an item/action. Memorizing isn’t the same as learning, and to learn you need context. You can teach vocabulary by simply talking to your child about the things around you.
Talk with your child not at him/her
The great thing about children is their constant sense of wonder. Everything is new to them. Who can forget the look on his/her child’s face the first time they see a bubble seem to disappear into thin air? There is so much to take in and understand. Often, children need plenty of time to understand what you’re saying. Get your child’s attention, simplify your language, and then really wait (longer than your think) for him/her to process what you’re saying. Provide enough silence to allow your child to think and respond.
Expect your child to respond
Show your child that you want him/her to communicate using either words or actions. Try to make eye contact with your child. If you need to, hold a desired object by your face to get his/her eye. Then show you are waiting silently and listening for a response by leaning in, raising your eyebrows, smiling, etc. If your child doesn’t respond after you allowed plenty of processing time, model the words or actions he/she needs to respond appropriately.
Visit your library
Read with your child every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Ask him/her to label the pictures when you point to them and point to the pictures when you label them. Also, ask your child to tell you about what’s going on in the pictures. Show your child you value reading, by reading yourself every day. Your child will learn from your good examples.
Extend interactions and turns
Start by imitating your child’s actions/words. Then introduce a new word or action. Once your child is imitating you, try to expand what you are saying or have him/her take more turns while you play. This process will develop slowly, but soon, through your models, your child will progress from actions, to single words, to short phrases, etc.
Never stop believing in your child and in yourself
You have the power to shape your child’s future, and with your guidance, your child’s communication will progress!