Child speech, language and communication development can be so complex yet so rewarding! That moment when your child looks up at you to be picked up, puts her arms up and says “up” or runs over to you and says “mommy, I want to go up” are all pieces of a larger puzzle that creates connection between you and your little one and that nurtures your little one’s self-expression.
Expression can come in so many different forms. The earlier we expose our kiddos to the many ways we can communicate and express, the more empowered they become.
The journey of self-expression starts from within the womb and along the way, there are so many ways to help your little one become more connected to her voice. As your child neared her 1 year mark, you may be longing to hear her first words. So, what happens when you don’t hear those first words, and you are struggling to understand your little one’s wants and needs? Parents often go into a cycle of blame-shame-guilt, but I am here to tell you to let that go!
There are many ways to connect with your kiddo, and by following these tips you will find yourself talking with your toddler! Now let’s be clear, every child is different so try out these tips and see what works best for your child. Don’t compare, don’t rush the process, be patient and be mindful that talking is not just with our words, we can communicate and convey our thoughts, needs, wants, and feelings in many ways!
So here it is, my 25 tips to talking with your toddler:
- REPETITION: Repeat words and phrases over & over. Think of repetition when you are selecting books to read with your toddler or toys to play with.
- SIMPLIFY: Use short phrases and sentences. Continue to model grammatically correct and complete sentences so that your little one is hearing the right form, but when it comes to structured activities, use a few words drawing your little one’s attention to that main vocabulary.
- PARALLEL TALK: Narrate everything your child is doing, Talk out loud, putting language to your little one’s actions. For example, if your little ones pushes a car, you say “push car” if she is running you can say “run, run, run”
- SELF TALK: Narrate everything you are doing. Similar to parallel talk, but here, you are talking out loud about everything you are doing. For example, if you are cutting up an apple for a snack, you can say “cut apple” or “mommy is cutting apple.”
- CREATE OPPORTUNITIES: Choose a daily routine (something that happens almost the same way, everyday) and focus on implementing the above concepts into that routine. The more you practice, the more your kiddo is absorbing! You can also create opportunities by the way you structure your environment and daily routines.
- GIVE CHOICES: Choices are an amazing way to create an opportunity for language and give your child a sense of autonomy. Start with 2 choices, then expand from there. For example, “do you want apple or banana” (while holding up the objects).
- USE VISUALS: Show your little one objects or photos to represent objects/actions when talking. For example, when giving the choice of an apple or banana, hold up the real objects and see if your little one will reach for, point to, or name the object she desires.
- IMITATION: Have your little one copy you. Important tip here, avoid saying “say ….” that puts unnecessary pressure on communication, simply provide the language “apple” and see if your little one imitates you. Give it 2-3 attempts before you hand the object to her, we never want to cause frustration and inside tip: if you cut up the apple slices into bite-sized pieces, and each piece gets 2-3 tries, that is lots of opportunities to practice “apple”
- MODEL: Model the language that you want your child to say. Start with simplified language (i.e. push car) then move into more grammatically correct and complete sentences (i.e. you are pushing the car). I love to use a combination of both when working with my kiddos!
- EXPAND: Use one-or-two more words than your kiddo is using. For example, if your kiddo says “ball” while rolling a ball, you say “roll ball.” If she says “roll ball” while rolling the ball, you say “I roll ball” and if she says “I roll ball” you say “I am rolling the ball”
- ROUTINES: Take a few routines that happen every single day and use the same words, phrases and/or short sentences to talk about the daily routines. For example, during bath time you might say “wash, wash, wash” when washing your toddler, or you can say “wash head,” “mommy washing head” or “daddy is washing your head.” Common routines include: bath time, bedtime, getting dressed, morning/night routines, meal/snack time, and car rides
- SING: Songs are a great way to teach language. When singing songs, start out singing it a few times together, then try a version where your toddler fills-in-the-blank. For example, when singing ‘Wheels on the Bus,” say “the people on the bus go up and ____” and see if your kiddo fills in with “down.”. You can then increase the number of words that you omit.
- FOLLOW CHILD’S LEAD: Let your toddler explore and discover her interests, likes and dislikes. Follow her lead as she moves around the room and follow her lead when she is using words, gestures, and/or signs to communicate. For example, if you are playing with cars and your toddler gets up to go play with the balls, get up and go with her. Acknowledge and embrace your toddler’s curiosity!
- WAIT: It is SO important to give your toddler some wait time. Oftentimes, we feel uncomfortable with silence and we feel the need to fill in those quiet moments by talking more. This isn’t always so effective. Pause and give your toddler time to respond.
- SIGNS & GESTURES: Let’s remember, self-expression comes in many forms and it is important to use many modalities when connecting with our kiddos. Do not limit your modeling to just words, give your kiddo options of self-expression. Early signs, gestures, and other forms of communication are so important to teach at an early age.
- ONE-BY-ONE: When playing a game, playing with objects or having a snack, make sure to hold onto objects/items so that your little one gets the opportunity and repetition to ask you for something multiple times. For example, when playing with cars, hold onto all the cars and have your little one request the item by saying “car,” “more car,” or “I want car” for each car that you have. Think about, if your little one has 10 cars, that is at least 10 opportunities to develop and expand her language skills, as opposed to giving her all 10 cars right away.
- SET THE STAGE: Set up your environment so that your little one needs to ask you for something. For example, give your little one the house without opening it up for her to encourage the word “open” or “help.” Setting up our environment is crucial when addressing and empowering our little one’s communication skills!
- PRETEND: I like to have fun with this one and kiddos love it too! I sometimes pretend that I don’t know how to do something or that I need help. For example, if I am trying to open a toy garage door, I might tug and pull at it and say “oh no, it’s not working, what should I do” and when my little one signs “open” or uses the word “open” or “open door” it is the magic in making the door work-viola, all of a sudden, the door opens!
- UP & AWAY: The first homework assignment I often give to our toddlers is homework for the parents! I almost always tell parents after our first session to “go home and put most of your little one’s favorite toys up and away, out of reach, so that she has to ask for it.” Let’s remember, this can be through pointing, gesturing or spoken words. This is a bonus tip because it also works on foundational pragmatic language skills, such as initiating conversations.
- GET SILLY: This is one of my favorites! I love getting silly with my kiddos! Making silly faces, over exaggerating my emotions and facial expressions, getting into character when I am reading a book…all great ways to shift and explore with different kinds of body language, vocal qualities, emotions and ways to self-express!
- EXPLORE: If you had to eat the same meal every single day for the rest of your days, how would that make you feel? Bored, frustrated, annoyed…just to name a few. Well, the same is true for our kiddos. If we do the same activities, even during play, with our little ones, the excitement tends to wear off quickly. So, switch things up, explore something new every week and try out new things!
- MAKE COMMENTS: Be mindful of having a good balance of questions and comments. Too often, we over do the questions with our kiddos: “who did you play with,” “what did you do at school,” “what did you eat for lunch”-this can be overwhelming at times so create a balance. When you ask your kiddo “what did you eat for lunch” and she excitedly shouts “celery and peanut butter,” instead of bouncing to the next question right away, make a comment instead: “wow, that is a yummy snack and it sounds like you really enjoyed it.”
- ASK QUESTIONS: This is another tip we must be mindful of: what types of questions are we asking. Oftentimes, we want our kiddo’s talking in sentences, but when we ask them a question, it really does elicit a 1-2 word response. For example, when you ask your kiddo “what did you eat for lunch” and she say “sandwich” and you think to yourself “ahh-why isn’t she answering me in a full sentence”-take a minute to reflect on your question. If she can answer it with one-word, then change up your question to elicit a longer response. Shift friend “what did you eat for lunch” to “tell me about your lunch”-you can see how the shift in the type of question, shifts the type of response we get.
- SAY IT BACK: Repeat back what your little one is saying to draw awareness to the correct form or pronunciation. For example, if your little one says “daddy goes outside” you can model back “yes, daddy went outside”-putting the emphasis on the correct grammatical form while also validating and acknowledging your little one’s beautiful communication.
- SLOW IT DOWN: Most of us tend to live in a fast-paced world and not only are our bodies moving fast, but so are our words. Practice the art of slowing down. When we move slow through life, we realize all the opportunities that are right in front of us, we become more present to how we can use the moment to increase our child’s development, and we model a more clear and articulate way of speaking-all of which our children are observing and absorbing right up!
These tips are designed to make you aware of all the amazing things you are likely doing, but not giving yourself enough credit for or it could be that you just needed this little nudge to connect with your kiddo with confidence! Whatever brought you here, I am here to tell you that you are doing great and by incorporating these 25 tips when talking with your toddler, you are creating an atmosphere of acceptance, trust, safety and empowerment!
Sholeh Shahinfar, MA, CCC-SLP, RYT
Sholeh Shahinfar is the founder of Valued Voices, and a licensed Speech Language Pathologist, Child Communication Specialist and Certified Oral Motor Therapist. She is passionate about uplifting children’s voices in the world and inspiring self-expression. In her free time, she loves going to the ocean, exploring nature with her pup Kobe, and spending time with her family and friends!