One of the most common questions that parents ask when I start working with their children is “When is my child going to talk?” Of course, the answer varies. This concern is one of the most often cited reasons for referrals to the Early Intervention Program and it is understandably a huge concern for families. It is also quite curious to me that overall, when I first meet children and their families, there is little emphasis placed by teams or other professionals regarding basic skills. Basic skills are like the building blocks of cognitive development, and toddlers need these in order to be able to grasp everything else, including (but not limited to) the concept of language. Therefore, as a parent or family member, it is important to understand what this entails.
Language is not only a skill, but also a cognitive concept, whereas one person relies on a set of symbols (the language itself) to relay meaning to another person. You may have observed that when children first learn to speak, they will not speak while another person is talking. They are grasping the give-and-take of a conversation and understanding the turn-taking that is needed to have a dialogue.
However, this does not happen overnight. There are certain skills that must be emphasized before children can learn those more complex skills, that include language. Knowing what skills to work on and emphasize, and how to get toddlers and children to learn them, is a very important first step.
There are 3 skills that I consider essential and I teach every toddler in order to cement an understanding of more complex skills sets. They are:
- Focusing: Focusing is very similar to “paying attention” and refers to a child’s ability to keep attention on the task that he or she has in front of him. He or she is concentrated and does not want to explore other toys or tasks. For example, if a child is engaged in putting together a ring stacker, this should be the ONLY activity they are performing. They are not simultaneously building a block tower or completing a puzzle. Those toys may come next, but for right now, they are only engaged in this one toy. How do we build on this skill? Make sure that your child has only a few toys at hand. Keep toys away if necessary and reduce your child’s need to explore. Less is more in this case.
- Following Directions: Following directions does not necessarily mean that toddlers should blindly do what they are told. This is rather a learning tool, a way to get your child to do a simple task, from beginning to end, on request. It is important that your child be involved in simple, one step tasks such as “close the door,’ “bring your cup,” “throw this in the garbage.” This is a precursor to language as it reinforces the symbolism of words, and promotes understanding, among other skills. We already discussed this in part in this prior post.
- Completing Tasks: A task should be performed from beginning to end. This skill is a reinforcement of the previous two. Once a child is engaged in a task, it should be carried out to completion. Otherwise, it is the same as letting your child explore. Exploring does have a place in learning, but it should be used in moderation and as a precursor to focusing and completing the task at hand. Promote task completion by re-directing to the task when focusing is lost and by giving your child something he/she likes after a job well done.
Continue practicing these skills and higher, more complex cognitive skills will make their appearance, including talking!