Take Turns with your Child to Build Strong Communication Skills

Communication starts at birth. Parents who talk to their baby, observe, follow, and play with their children play a crucial role in supporting communication development. One important skill is turn-taking. Turn-taking skills are an integral part of communication in young children.

What exactly is “turn-taking” skills?

Turn-taking skills can be compared to the ultimate “ping-pong” communication game.  It involves the back-and-forth interaction between two people, between you and your child.  Turn-taking skills are the foundation to healthy attachment and communication skills.  Turn-taking skills are built into “serve-and-return” interactions that are so important to build a child’s brain. When you and your baby are actively engaged and practice taking turns during sound play imitation, a peek-a-boo game, chatting, you are laying the foundation for later conversation. 

Turn-taking starts early: Initially, babies learn to communicate primarily to connect with you, parents, and mostly, have their needs met. At first, babies may not understand much of the words we use and how to communicate. But as we continue to talk to them, tune in, interpret their wiggles and giggles, babies learn about sounds, words but also about the logistics of communication when we talk to them. They learn about the world by hearing you talk.

Turn-taking skills are learned at play and in conversation: Children need to hear language to learn language. Be responsive to your baby right from birth – when you respond to their reflexive crying, you are showing your baby how to become an intentional communicator (e.g., you cry = I pick you up, you wiggle = I sing once more, you cry again = I feed you). When you tune in to your child and talk to your little one in routines (e.g., while you are feeding, bathing, or changing them), you are helping them build their communication. By tuning into your baby and waiting for them to respond, you are building opportunities for your child to take turns.

Get your child to take a turn:   First, tune into your child’s. Look at their arousal level, their activity, play, or interest. Follow their lead and then, wait. Here are ways to do this:

  • Get the conversation going: label a toy, describe your child’s play, or what you see. In plain language: “say something about what’s going on right now.”
  • Talk then wait …. Wait a little bit longer to give your child plenty of time to take a turn. Try counting to 5, or even 10, in your head.
  • Give your child nonverbal cues to let them know you are waiting for them to take a turn.  Be face to face and…
    • lean towards your child
    • wait expectantly: open your eyes wide and raise your eyebrows
    • smile encouragingly
  • At other times, verbally cue your child by saying « It’s your turn » and « it’s my turn ».

Remember, taking turns is not only done with words, sentences, and long monologues. Turn-taking can consist of sounds, wiggles, words, gestures, or signs. If your baby is wiggling after you stopped singing “Row your boat”, it’s probably their way to let you know that they want to hear the song once more.

What should I do to help my child take turns more easily?

Help your child develop those healthy turn-taking skills in the first few years of life with these strategies and activities:

With young children:

  • Build turn-taking into daily routines such as dressing, changing diapers, or playing
  • Play social games with your child like peek-a-boo, hide and seek, etc. Keep it going while rolling a car back and forth, rolling balls, building a tower out of blocks, or blowing bubbles.
  • Ask questions and wait for your child to give you a clue or answer
  • Make deliberate mistakes (like giving them soup without a soup) and wait for them to take a turn.
  • Offer bit-by-bit their favorite food.  Wait for them to ask for more.
  • Focus on social routines such as greetings every day. I used to stroll around the house with my toddler in my arms and say “Goodnight” to toys, to pictures of friends and family, to our family members before heading to our room.  

With older kids:

  • Use simple open-ended questions such as “what, who, when” at first when you are having a conversation with your toddler or preschooler.
  • Eventually, use more complex open-ended questions “Why” questions are important to build complex sentences but are great to keep turns going. It helps them think about why something happened (e.g., Why did their tower crumble? Why did the dog run out of the house) and “how” to find a solution. 
  • Later, use “thinking” questions to keep turn-taking going in conversation such as: “How do you think your friend felt when this happened?”, “ If you were the big bad wolf, would you like to eat the Three Little Pigs?”.
  • Play board games or games with rules. These are great to get kids to wait their turn, adhere to rules and take multiple turns related to the same object. Plus, it will give your family the time to spend time together and hear about day-to-day situations.
  • Read books. Talk about absurd or puzzling situations such as the wolf able to find a ladder and getting into the little pigs’ chimney. 

For more resources and strategies, visit the First Words website at www.firstwords.ca.  Take a look at the following:

By Roxane Bélanger, M.O.A., SLP-C, Reg. CALSPO
Speech Language Pathologist
First Words Preschool Speech and Language Program of Ottawa and Renfrew County

Recognizing speech and language problems early on is the best approach!
Check out our First Words Communication Checkup tool to know if your child is
meeting communication milestones. Refer online if necessary. For more information, visit
http://www.firstwords.ca or call Ottawa Public Health at (613) PARENTS.