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11 Simple Ways to Teach Your Toddler Communication Skills
Has this happened to you?…
You’re hanging out with some friends who also have a two-year-old, and you notice that your little one doesn’t quite know some of the words or speak in the same way as the other toddler.
So you start to panic or feel a little down.
You question whether your toddler could have a speech delay, or you even get yourself worked up to the point of wondering whether your child could have an autism spectrum disorder.
You thought your two-year-old was very bright. But why isn’t he also using those long sentences that the other toddler’s using? Why doesn’t he know that word that she knows?
I know that I’ve felt the same way about my toddler. And as a former child therapist, I’ve had to talk myself down a few times and remind myself of what’s entailed with a speech delay or autism diagnosis.
The truth is that your child has been influenced by different factors compared to other children. So your child might know some super awesome words and phrases that other two-year-olds don’t know (hopefully good words). But at the same time, other two-year-olds might have had more experience or practice with other words or phrases compared to your child.
Still, if you feel like you want to boost your toddler’s language development, I have some helpful tips for you.
11 Tips for Teaching Your Toddler Communication Skills
1. Verbally label everything.
Something simple that you can do from the time your child is an infant is to verbally label everything (“Apple,” “Dog,” etc.).
You don’t have to expect your child to repeat the words. But simply labeling items and talking can help your child out tremendously.
2. Praise and reinforce appropriate communication.
When I say “reinforce,” I mean that you want to do things to increase the likelihood of appropriate communication.
Your child needs to learn that it’s good to communicate appropriately. So you can reinforce appropriate communication through things like giving your child positive attention, praise, encouragement, and rewards for communication.
Now, you don’t have to give your child actual rewards or prizes for communicating. But you might reward your child in a more natural sense by delivering the items your child requests immediately after he communicates what he wants (assuming he’s allowed to have the item in the first place).
Delivering items immediately will help him make that connection between:
I request something >> I get what I ask for >> So I should continue requesting the things I want.
3. Read books together.
Reading is a great way to teach your child communication via oral and visual methods at the same time. So try to start reading to your child as a young baby.
Picture books that are meant for teaching words, such as this My Big Word Book, can be very helpful. And my daughter is obsessed with this My First Brain Quest pack.
4. Use visual aids.
Books can act as visual aids that help teach communication. But there are other visual aids you can use to teach communication as well.
For instance, you can make a chart, booklet, or file folder full of pictures of items that your child frequently wants. Your child can then point to the picture of what he wants to communicate he wants it. You can also practice labeling items on the chart together.
5. Understand that there are different components of communication and adjust your expectations.
In order for a child to fully be able to communicate around a word, he must understand a few different components.
For instance, when asked “What is it?” while you point to an apple, your child might be able to label it as an “apple.” However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he can request an apple when he wants one. It also doesn’t mean that he can respond to another question regarding apples, such as “What type of fruit can be red, yellow, or green?” or “Where is the apple?”
So it’s important to be aware of where your child is with language development and to make sure that you’re setting realistic expectations.
6. Sing songs.
Not only do kids learn words and sounds through singing and listening to music, but they also learn about things like rhythm, rhyme, and tone.
Having a hard time engaging your child in either reading books or singing? Many libraries and community centers hold story time sessions for toddlers that can help engage your child. So check to see what’s available in your local area.
7. Play toddler activities and games that teach or reinforce communication.
Some electronic toddler toys, such as this Fisher Price tablet (which keeps our daughter entertained at a restaurant), can model and engage your child in speech development. Although, I tend to prefer buying my child mostly non-electronic toys.
There are plenty other activities and games that you can play with your toddler to teach communication skills. For instance, playing with pretend food items together can involve labeling items, requesting items, and asking and responding to questions.
Even toddler games that involve matching similar items can help your child with receptive communication because they require an understanding that two items go together.
8. Speak in direct and concise ways.
You want to speak to your child’s developmental level. At first, you want to use simple language like one-word labels and short sentences to teach your child. Then, as your child is able to comprehend more, you can make your own sentences more complex.
Try to avoid giving your child multiple labels for a particular item or person. Stick to one word or phrase at first. You can teach your child that there can be different ways to refer to one thing later as your child’s speech development improves.
9. Model nonverbal communication.
Communication is not just verbal. So in addition to modeling verbal communication, you want to model and reinforce nonverbal communication, such as gesturing, pointing, and waving.
10. Practice giving your child simple commands and asking questions.
Start by giving your child brief commands, such as “Clap your hands” and “Stand up.” As your child ages, you can give multi-step commands.
It’s also good to teach your child imitation skills. So you might prompt your child to imitate you by saying “Do this.”
Don’t forget to give positive attention to your child when he follows through with an appropriate response.
Having trouble getting your child to follow through with your commands? Here are some tips to help with this.
11. Avoid reinforcing inappropriate communication.
Giving too much attention to your toddler when he communicates inappropriately (i.e. is yelling/throwing temper tantrums) will only increase the inappropriate communication and, therefore, decrease appropriate communication.
So you want to make sure you’re reacting differently toward your toddler when he communicates with nice words versus with inappropriate forms of communication. (Related Post: How to Stop Your Child’s Baby Talk and Yelling).
In my e-Book, The Ultimate Guide to Dealing with Temper Tantrums, I talk about how to use tantrums as an opportunity to teach communication skills. That way, you can prevent future tantrums that would be caused by a lack of communication skills.
Final Thoughts on Toddler Communication Skills Development
When you hang out with other toddlers, it’s easy to play the comparison game and get caught up wondering if your child could be behind on language development.
But remember not to compare your child to others. Every child learns differently and at different rates. And each child is exposed to different factors that can influence speech development.
If your toddler’s language skills seem drastically different from where you think they should be or if your child showed a sudden loss of several previously learned language skills, you may want to speak to your child’s pediatrician and/or a speech therapist.
However, try not to stress, as most children soon catch up to where they should be with language development. And try out the above tips to help your toddler communicate at his own pace.
Disclaimer: Although I was a therapist, I am not your therapist or your child’s therapist. Reading this post does not enter you into a client-therapist relationship with me. The content in this post is meant to be used as a general guideline and has not been individually tailored to the needs of you and your child. If you are in need of therapeutic services, please seek the support of a mental health counselor or behavior specialist.
References: My information comes from years of training on Applied Behavior Analysis, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Verbal Behavior and other evidence-based techniques. I also like to refer to Russell Barkley and Alan Kazdin.