Helping Kids Wait With Language: Taking (Some) Struggles Away


Cute little girl wants to apply her mothers makeupOne of the most difficult things for a child to do is wait. There are two big reasons why this is really hard for kids. First, young children don’t have a strong understanding of time concepts (e.g., before, after, until, soon, etc.) until around age 5. Second, children have difficulty regulating their behaviour. So even if they understand when certain things will happen, it can be hard to be patient, quiet and still until the waiting period is over.

In my therapy sessions I use pictures, schedules, timers and other tools to help kids understand what is going to happen and then to wait. These visual tools are always really helpful but it’s not realistic for me to have these kinds of things on hand for every situation. And it’s certainly not realistic for the average parent to use these kinds of things during typical daily life. So what do we do? Well, here are few tricks I have come up with that I use both in my therapy sessions and with my own kids. These are the ones I have found to be the most successful and take a lot of the ‘pain’ out of waiting.

1)  First/Then

This is a great technique for children who have very little or no knowledge of time concepts and whose patience can be quite thin. I mainly use this when waiting for things that are coming shortly. For example, “first we put on a coat, then we go outside” or “first Tim goes on the slide, then your turn”. When your child asks again while they are trying to wait (as they inevitably do) just repeat the same first/then statement again in a calm way. This lets them know the plan is still the same and reassures them they will get what they are waiting for.

2)  Using Songs or Rhymes to Signal Time Durations

This technique is great for those short duration tasks that require kids to sit still and wait, for example brushing or washing hair, diaper changes or cutting finger nails. Choose a song or rhyme that lasts around 30 seconds – 1 minute. In our house we use ‘1, 2 Buckle My Shoe’. We start the rhyme at the beginning of the task and it ends when the task is finished. I adjust the speed as necessary, slowing down or speeding up how fast I say it to match the specific task duration. By using the same rhyme or song each time, children start to get a sense of how long something will take and knowing when the end is coming can take a lot of the stress out of waiting.

3)  Telling Stories

Telling stories is something you can do anywhere, anytime. Not only does telling oral stories benefit children’s expressive and narrative language skills, but it is also a super way to help kids wait. I find this technique is best used when waiting for things that take several minutes, for example waiting in line at the grocery store. In general, this works well with kids 3 and over, but my daughter enjoyed hearing stories at 2 ½ so it depends on the child. A few quick tips for great stories: make them surround your child’s interest, use gestures and sound effects to keep kids interested and ask them to join in and share their own ideas to build the story with you.

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Lynn is a speech-language pathologist and the founder of Talking Together. She has received a master’s degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders from Western University and has achieved clinical certification from Speech-Language and Audiology Canada.

Lynn also has additional certification as a Hanen Centre It Takes Two to Talk instructor, as well as training in applied behaviour analysis (ABA), picture exchange communication system (PECS), augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and American Sign Language (ASL).

Her research has been published in the journal of Memory and Cognition and the Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology.


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