“It feels like we’re doing the same things over and over, why hasn’t my child learned this by now?”
“We’ve tried that and it didn’t work.”
“My child said that once, but hasn’t said it again since.”
Toddlers with language delays often learn along the same developmental path as “typically” developing children, they may just require more time to learn skills, more repetition of models, more cueing or help, more practice with each new concept, word, or skill, etc. Often times, children with language delays don’t just pick up words overheard in adult conversation and they don’t repeat things they have heard within full sentences. They require more direct teaching of each word or concept, which often includes a lot of exposure to each target, keeping things simple and concise, and a lot of repetition and practice before it truly becomes part of their repertoire. Some children may process a new word after five repetitions, some may require 20, some may require 50 or more, it all depends on the complexity of the concept or word, their interest level in said concept or word, what cues or aids they have when being exposed to this concept or word (e.g. pictures, physical objects, models of actions, etc.) and a variety of other factors. Just as we as adults often need practice or multiple exposures to be good at something new, children’s brains, oral motor mechanisms, and bodies need a lot of repetitions to efficiently learn and use new skills.
At times it may feel like our toddlers are not listening or intentionally refusing to do or say something we’ve seen or heard in the past, but it’s important to be aware that just because we’ve heard something or seen it done once, twice, or even a handful of times, does not necessarily mean it’s been mastered; therefore, we cannot necessarily always expect it done. Until each new skill is used consistently, children need continued repetition and practice. Oftentimes, we will hear some children in the initial phases of learning to talk repeating words to themselves for seemingly no apparent reason, but they are practicing when there is no pressure to perform!
Once we’ve seen a new skill or heard a new word, resist the urge to move on to the next new thing. Elicit this over and over to help your toddler practice! Make it a game to perform the action or repeat the word again and again. Make it functional so the child has more motivation to keep trying or participating. For example, saying “Say ___. Say it again. ____. Say ___,” is not a functional use of this new word. While it seems to be the quickest, easiest way to get high repetitions of the word in a short period of time, they will quickly lose interest, in addition to not necessarily equating this new word with it’s true meaning. Instead, with each target word, give a little at a time so the child is motivated to use to the word again in order to receive the desired output. For example, give one piece of the snack until your child uses the word again to request more of it, give one piece of a desired toy until they use the word again to get another one, or perform one silly action and pause until they use the word to request another performance. It may feel redundant, but modeling or eliciting a new concept, skill, or word with high repetition is key to your toddler’s acquisition of it. Once children find something they like, they will attempt to get it over and over again anyways, so you might as well use it as an opportunity for repetitive exposure and practice!