How Do I Get My Toddler to Sit and Focus During a Speech Therapy Session?

Every so often I receive emails from parents or therapists that I don’t know personally nor have ever met. The other day, a mom emailed me with the following question:

“My daughter is 2 and a half years old and very speech delayed. I think the biggest obstacle is that she doesn’t want to sit down, pay attention, and learn. She would rather be running around outside. How can I get her to sit down and focus without having a tantrum?”

This mom’s concern is not too uncommon. I’ve had many parents ask similar questions or say related comments. Here’s my quick answer to this question:

If you want your toddler to learn, you can’t force him or her to sit down and focus.

My immediate response is sometimes met with ambivalence. Parents ask, “Why not? Why shouldn’t I expect Stacey to sit down and learn? I have to get her ready for preschool.”

My more detailed explanation digs deeper.

First, I ask mom why. “Why do you feel Stacey needs to sit down and focus to learn?” Too often we make assumptions about what parents know and don’t know. It’s very important for us to reflect on their thoughts and feelings because their answers will let us know how much or how little we need to coach them. It turns out that Stacey’s mom thinks it’s okay to have her sit down and focus because she sees other children the same age as Stacey who are relaxed and can willingly sit for long durations. Mom thinks, “If they can do, why can’t my own daughter do it?”

After, learning why a parent thinks a particular way, then I can then gauge whether or not the expectations are realistic. If you’ve never run a marathon and are out of shape (sounds like me), it would be silly to sign up to run a marathon this upcoming weekend. Yet, when it comes to our children, we expect (or desperately want) them to act like their peers and/or think that significant progress can occur in a short amount of time. In this case, the expectation that Stacey will willingly sit down and focus is inappropriate. We cannot force Stacey to learn by staying in one place. As a matter of fact, we can’t force anyone to do anything, regardless of their age.

But, we can incorporate her interests, follow her lead, and create situations that foster learning and communication.

We would have to explain this to Stacey’s mom.

Toddlers learn to communicate when the experience is fun and interactive and when they are interested.

Toddlers do not learn to communicate through traditional teaching instructions (e.g. adult-centered, rote learning, memorization). It has to make sense and they have to be motivated. Toddlers will understand that something is hot not because you sat them down and showed a picture of an oven or coffee mug. They will most likely learn hot, when they touch something hot. This is also known as incidental learning. For instance, I’m a big coffee drinker and for a while my daughter would try to grab my mug. At first, I avoided having her touch the mug but then I thought, “Why not let her touch it?” When the mug was still rather warm but not too hot, I let her carefully touch it. She quickly pulled her hand away (more so because she was surprised) and looked up at me. Then, I immediately said, “It’s hot. You have to be careful.” Since that time, she no longer touches my coffee mug. Now, she points, makes a face, and tries to say hot.

When it comes to speech therapy for toddlers it’s a marathon not a sprint.

Foundational skills need to be in place before we can expect them to talk.

If your toddler craves movement, start with movement based activities.

Some examples include:

  • Running around and popping bubbles, playing hide-n-seek, bouncing on an exercise ball, or crawling through a tunnel.

For Stacey, this is where I would start. Then, once she has burned some energy and her sensory system is more regulated, she may be able to sit down and focus.

At that point though, she’s not sitting down to focus because she’s being forced. It’s because she’s ready and because we have engaged her in an activity she has interest in.

Next, transition to a close-ended activity using a toy or play routine that you think she’ll be interested in.

Then, if you sense Stacey is getting fidgety again, do another sensory based activity. Return to more movement activities or try other sensory activities like:

  • play doh, bean filled sensory bins with beans or kinetic sand

Remember to follow her lead.

Lastly, children’s attention will also grow when they learn what to expect and when there is a routine to the session.

It’s amazing what children are capable of doing when engaged, interested, and ready for it.

If you are a speech language pathologist, what else would you share with mom?

If you need more assistance or suggestions, you may like these posts:

For more tips, please see the Troubleshooting Tips: What to Do if the Toddler is Not Imitating You, in My Toddler Talks: Strategies and Activities to Promote Your Child's Language Development . Amazon affiliate link included. Thanks for your support!

I wish you the very best.