Q: My toddler’s speech therapist instructed me to withhold desirable objects to encourage communication. Every time I try to do this, my child has a complete meltdown. How is this supposed to help him talk?
A: Withholding preferred or highly favorable objects is a common technique used by many speech-language pathologists to encourage language expression. It is just one of the many tools in your talking “toolbox” that you can use to model appropriate requesting, either verbally or through sign language. By withholding a favorite object, you are essentially setting up an opportunity to model what you want your child to do in order to request that object (“You want ‘more.’ Tell Mama, ‘ma-ma-more’”). But here’s where it gets tricky: As soon as you prompt your child to use sign language or to imitate your verbal model, they have a meltdown, despite imitating your therapist’s prompts 30 minutes earlier with no problem.
While frustrating, your child’s behavior makes complete sense. He has been able to meet his wants and needs up until now using nonverbal communication, such as gestures (pointing, pulling on your hand, etc.) or eye contact. Now you are requiring him to do something much more difficult, and this change to his routine is stressful! But the key to success is repetition, so don’t give up! As a rule of thumb, prompt your child to imitate your model no more than three times before helping them with hand-over-hand cueing of sign language. This teaches your child that they have to use at least one form of expressive language before you are going to meet their needs. Model the sign while verbally saying the request, and then give them the object while praising them for great talking. The idea is not to make them so upset that they no longer want to communicate with you, so use your judgment to keep your child from getting to that point.
The bottom line is, every child is different and you know your individual child’s wants, needs, abilities and frustration tolerance better than anyone. So trust your instincts and pull back when you know your child is being pushed farther than his/her tolerance. With practice and patience, you will be able to use this technique to support the progress of your child’s expressive language development.
Autumn Smith, MS, CCC-SLP