5 Ways to Improve Toddler Communication Skills

toddlertalk
Image via Katie Hurley

By my daughter's first birthday, she knew fourteen signs. We began baby sign language with her early on in an effort to help her learn to communicate.

I won't lie. Not everyone supported this effort. Over and over again, people told us that she would never learn to talk if she could use baby sign to get her needs met. These were old-school thinkers at best. We continued to use baby sign with verbal communication, and she learned to communicate her needs.

By the end of that first year, she could tell us exactly when she needed a diaper change, if she needed some food, milk, or water, if something hurt, and a number of other things that can typically cause frustration for toddlers. Toddlers tend to be big on ideas and feelings but low on words to communicate those ideas and feelings, and that's a recipe for frustration (translation: temper tantrum).

Can you imagine someone following you around all day and talking incessantly about every single thing that happens? Yikes!

People often suggest talking to your toddlers to help build that very important vocabulary. While it's true that conversing with your child helps build conversational skills, toddlers also need quiet time. Can you imagine someone following you around all day and talking incessantly about every single thing that happens? Yikes! Even little ones need a break and some time to think.

Communication skills do decrease frustration, however, so it's important to work on building those skills over time. When they are infants, they need to hear your voice and how it changes as you talk. (I read entire novels to my daughter while nursing her!) When they're toddlers, it's time to work on building that vocabulary and improving conversational skills, and that starts with you.

So what is the best way to help your toddler develop the communication skills that will make life easier?

Active reading

Of course, you read to your toddler each day, but do you make reading active? Instead of simply reading page by page, stop and point out facial expressions in the illustrations. Look for funny pictures and describe them. Point out the colors of the flowers and trees and make connections between the illustrations and the text. Slowing down and paying attention to the details helps your toddler build his or her vocabulary and gain a greater understanding of the feelings and emotions within the story. This will improve communication skills as your child grows.

You know those board books with one picture/word per page that probably bore you to tears? Those are essential for toddlers! Reading familiar words over and over again might not seem like much fun to you, but toddlers love seeing their favorite things within the pages of a book.

{ MORE: Breaking the Cycle: What To Do When You Want To Stop Yelling }

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Image via Flickr/ James Jordan

Skip the baby talk

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Believe me, I know, it's difficult. It's so tempting to talk in a sing-song baby talk voice with babies and toddlers. They're so little and cute — how can we not? Here's the thing: They learn from us long before they can talk. The reason it's so important to talk to your toddlers is that engaging them in conversation helps them build conversational skills. When they are infants, these conversations are one sided, but they are soaking in verbal cues. When they become toddlers, you start to hear toddler responses. They practice and learn by watching and responding to you.

If you talk baby talk with your babies and toddlers, they will learn that this is the correct way to communicate. Yes, use a happy voice and sing toddler tunes with your child, but speak as you want your toddler to learn to speak.

As for foul language, slang, and other inappropriate content? Put an end to that now. Remember, your child learns from watching and listening, and you are always on the stage.

See the whole child

Due to the fact that toddlers have limited verbal skills, adults tend to jump in and answer for them. This is a mistake. Imagine how it would feel if someone constantly answered on your behalf. That's frustrating.

Improving toddler communication requires patience. When you ask a question, give your child time before you launch into the answer. Allow your child the opportunity to point, babble, or compose an appropriate facial reaction in response.

Use the phrase “Show me” to empower your toddler to communicate. Repeat back what you think your toddler is saying and seek clarification. Most importantly, get down to your toddler's level and make eye contact when you're speaking. I know that seems like a given, but sometimes we forget to slow down and speak clearly when talking to toddlers. This helps them process the information and learn how to talk to others.

{ MORE: 4 Positive Discipline Techniques to Use with Your Toddler }

Avoid over-correction

Toddlers make a lot of mistakes when communicating, and that's OK. A toddler might, for instance, refer to every animal he or she sees as a dog. Resist the urge to correct every mistake, as that can be defeating for toddlers. It doesn't feel good to be “wrong” all of the time, and this practice can discourage attempts at language.

Rest assured. Your child will learn that not every color is “red” and not every piece of food is a “cracker.” Give it time.

{ MORE: Is the Traditional Family Dinner Even Plausible Anymore? }

Baby sign language

Baby sign language decreases frustration, increases communication skills, and improves vocabulary. Instead of simply pointing and grunting, toddlers who use baby sign can actually say what they mean. Baby sign empowers toddlers and can help reduce tantrums related to lack of communication skills.

Get the whole family involved for best results. Be patient. Better communication is right around the corner.

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5 Ways to Improve Toddler Communication Skills

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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