By: Lindsay Barret  MS, CCC-SLP

Turn-taking is one of the most common foundational skills we teach our children. Similarly to saying “please and thank you,” turn-taking is a cardinal rule of childhood. We encourage children of all ages to take turns during play and share their toys or favorite snacks.

But, have you ever thought about turn-taking outside the context of playing games? Speech-language pathologists are trained to view communicative exchanges as turn-taking games. We learn that language, both verbal and non-verbal, is essentially a turn-taking game. Information is sent and received in a cyclical fashion, where partners take turns engaging in a communicative exchange. This idea is widespread in therapy. Speech-language pathologists address a variety of turn-taking skills that occur during an interaction. This ranges from greeting others, maintaining the topic of conversation/ circles of communication, asking and answering questions, commenting, retelling narratives, and following directions.

We also target appropriate play skills that involve turn taking, such as engaging in cooperative play and maintaining the play schema. Fundamental skills such as joint attention and theory of mind are required to take turns during communication. Turn-taking comes in a variety of forms and is a basic part of our day to day interactions. Information is constantly being exchanged between communication partners, making this skill a crucial element of children’s social, emotional, and academic development.

Are you surprised to hear that turn-taking is so much more than simply waiting for your turn during family game night? Continue reading to learn simple ways to encourage turn-taking in young children.

Model turn-taking in play

  • Use characters in play to demonstrate appropriate turn-taking and be sure to narrate that each character is taking turns.

Comment on turn-taking in the real world

  • As you see other children or adults taking turns during play or conversation, comment on it to bring awareness of this skill to your child.

Exaggerate negative emotions when turn taking does not occur

  • Kids love when adults are silly and exaggerate their emotions. Pretending to feel sad or angry for example is a fun and effective way to demonstrate the importance of turn taking. It also shows children that two or more people are involved in a communication exchange and that eventually, the child needs to modify his/ her behavior based on their communication partner(s). For example, if a child is speaking to another child and the listener looks confused, the speaker needs to modify their message based on their partner’s reaction. The exchange of the initial message, confused look, and modified message are turns being taken in the game of communication.

Use a prop or timer   

  • Use a prop such as a “talking stick/ doll” or a timer to demonstrate turn taking from tactile, visual, and auditory modalities. When it is your turn in a game or your turn to participate in the conversation, hand the child the item to represent that it is their turn. Passing the item back and forth helps make an abstract concept more concrete and easier to understand. Use the timer to help your child understand the pattern of turn-taking and increase their awareness of when it is their turn versus their partners’ turns.

Do you have other creative ways to encourage turn taking or want to know more about developmental norms for the skills mentioned above? Leave us a comment below or give us a call!