This Simple Tip Can Get Your Toddler Talking

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We frequently get questions from parents who are looking for simple strategies that they can use to encourage their children to use verbal language.  We’ve been exploring some of our favorite tips over the last several months including waiting, giving just a little bit, withholding and giving choices.  Today we are going to discuss sabotage, which is one of my favorite tips to get kids talking. Although it sounds bad to use sabotage with your kids, it’s actually a great way to open up communication opportunities during your daily routines and play time. Here are some of our favorite ways to use sabotage to encourage expressive language.


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One of the simplest ways to sabotage an activity is to play dumb.  As parents we are so in tune with our kids that we can often anticipate their needs before they communicate them to us.  I am often amazed by a parent’s ability to know that a certain type of grunt means they want a banana or which direction they point means they want a particular toy.   Meeting our children’s needs is great, but when we are already anticipating what they will want or need before they’ve had the chance to tell us, we’ve taken those communication opportunities away. Instead of filling up little Tommy’s milk cup the second it looks empty, just ignore it until he tries to communicate that he wants more.  If he hands you the cup or point to it, play dumb. Do not go get the milk. You can ask, “What do you want?” If he doesn’t respond, start asking if he wants things that you know he does NOT want. “Do you want a sandwich?” “Do you want broccoli?” Play dumb and act as if you have NO clue what he wants. Children will often put in more effort into communicating when they are interacting with someone who doesn’t understand them/anticiapte their needs.  They are so used to their parents knowing what they want, that many toddlers won’t go out of their way to communicate unless the opportunities are given to them.  

This strategy is great for pointers.  You may have a little one who directs you by pointing.  If you ask them what they want, they may take you to it or point to it.  Play dumb when they point. If your toddler takes you to the pantry and points towards a cereal bar, hand them other items instead.  If you hand them an apple instead of the cereal bar, chances are they will say “no”, hand it back or if they are like my toddler, chuck it at you in anger.  Continue to play dumb. “Oh you don’t want an apple, what do you want? A banana.” Ask them if they want a few more items that you know they do NOT want. This is providing your child with multiple opportunities to tell you what they want.  They may say “bar” after your third time of getting it wrong because they think that you have lost your touch and don’t know what they want for once. Your child may not verbally imitate you, but you’ve still given them various opportunities to communicate and modeled appropriate language skills.  This will just prepare them for when they are able to use verbal language. If they haven’t told you what they want after a few times of getting it wrong, you can then model it for them. “Oh you want a bar.” Wait several seconds and see if they imitate you after you’ve provided them with a verbal model of what they want. If they don’t, model the word again to reinforce that vocabulary.  You can also target sign language this way by playing dumb until they use a sign to communicate with you.



Another great way to sabotage your children during play is to give them something broken or incomplete during play.  If you are playing with a puzzle only give them a few of the pieces, that way they can tell you which pieces are missing.  If they are coloring, give them a broken crayon that’s too small to draw with. You can read a book upside down or give them a musical toy that’s turned off or has the batteries taken out.  All of these scenarios give your child the opportunity to tell you what has broken and what they need to make it work. Sometimes the verbalization may be as simple as “uh oh” or they may use the sign/word for “help”.  Make sure to play dumb until they indicate that the toy or activity isn’t working. If they begin to grunt or gesture that something’s wrong, ask them “What’s wrong?” Give them plenty of wait time to respond. If they don’t respond with a verbalization or sign, play dumb again and then model what you think they are trying to tell you.  Sabotaging toys and activities by giving kids broken or incomplete pieces ensures they will have the chance to communicate and problem solve with you.


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If your children are anything like mine, they like familiarity or routine.  Most kids pick up on subtle differences and will notice any changes to the status quo.  So imagine if you put their socks on their hands instead of their feet or gave them their breakfast plate with nothing on it.  That would probably get their attention, wouldn’t it? Doing a familiar routine incorrectly or sabotaging it is a great way to open up a communication opportunity.  You are giving your child the opportunity to tell you that you are doing it wrong. You child could point to their feet or say “feet” when you put the sock on their hands.  They could name their favorite breakfast item when you hand them the empty plate. If you go along with the routine as if it is normal, you are putting the ball in their court for them to explain that you are doing it incorrectly.  “Oh the socks aren’t supposed to go on your hands, where do they go?” “Oh no your plate is empty, what do you want to eat?” You can be creative and do any number of familiar routines incorrectly to give your little one various communication opportunities.  My kids LOVE to take the lead, so they get a kick out of telling me how to do the routine correctly.



We hope that our suggestions of waiting, withholding, giving just a little bit, giving choices and sabotage have been helpful when targeting speech and language development with your own children.  Give these tips a try and let us know which suggestions have been most helpful for your family.