Speech Therapy for Toddlers: 7 Ways to Promote Communication without Frustration

Speech Therapy for Toddlers: 7 Ways to Promote Communication without Frustration

“I just want to get my child to talk! But, when I do, he cries and screams and gets so frustrated. I end up being so frustrated!” - mom of a 24 month old boy

Maybe you’re a parent or a professional who works in early intervention and have tried using some of the following strategies to get a toddler to talk:

Self talk and Parallel Talk



Expanding and Extending

Question Asking Strategy

Instead of eliciting those yearned for first words, the toddler cries, runs away, shuts down, or even pinches and bites.

Not frustrating toddler

Not frustrating toddler

Photo Credit: adwriter

If your toddler is showing frustration during the therapy process or when you try to “get him to talk” maybe I can help.

Frustration is apart of life. At one point or another, we get irritated, upset, or angry. Fortunately, for us adults, we can talk about our feelings and frustrations with others. A toddler who cannot yet speak, doesn’t have this option.

As parents, we cannot, nor should we be expected to prevent our children’s frustrations all the time. However, it is wise to discover triggers for the frustration and teach them to communicate in an appropriate manner.

If you find that your toddler is getting frustrated during a speech therapy session or when you try to “get him to talk”, perhaps it is because your toddler feels to perform a certain way.

This post will explain seven different ways to decrease your toddler’s frustration from being expected to perform while simultaneously trying to get him to talk.

  1. Change your mindset.

If you’re a speech language pathologist (SLP) treating a child who is delayed, you may feel pressure to get the child talking almost immediately.  You want to prove to parents that this early intervention thing is worth their time and money. You also yearn to provide efficient and effective treatment.

Sometimes though, this thinking backfires and causes too much stress for both you and the child.

When I leave for work my husband sometimes kiddingly says, “Have fun!”Although this kinda gets my goat, and he knows it, I strongly believe that speech therapy with toddlers should be FUN.

If YOU’RE NOT having fun and are enduring stress from this pressure to get the child to talk, then most likely he or she feels the same way.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How is my breathing? Is it short and shallow or relaxed and refreshing?

  • Am I relaxed, in the zone, and having fun?

  • Does the the child seem engaged and receptive to your prompts and activities while still smiling and laughing?

When young children are having fun, they are usually happy and comfortable. This makes them better able to process information and stay focused. In my private practice, I strive to keep my sessions playful and upbeat and I continually observe my clients’ reactions and behaviors to ensure that they are engaged, calm, and happy.

2. Find the threshold.

Pediatric speech language pathologists who specialize in working with toddlers have a knack for making  speech therapy sessions look fun and easy.

We skillfully know how to engage toddlers, keep their attention and motivation, as well as get them to respond, imitate and or initiate communication. Many of us are also very good at coaching and empowering parents to use certain techniques. Sometimes we’re so good that to the unknowing person, it may seem…easy…

….don’t be fooled!

We’re constantly adjusting, adapting, and manipulating situations to make the toddler feel in control and at ease while still targeting a specific goal.

How come a good speech therapy session looks so fun and so easy?

Because most of the time we know just how much to push, encourage, or challenge the toddler to make progress BUT to avoid a meltdown.

Through calculated discovery (or simple trial and error - ha!) we find the child’s tolerance or stress threshold and work with it.

Finding a child’s threshold-  how much to push and how far to go- is something of an art and also something that is sometimes unpredictable.

Every child’s threshold is different.

Every child is also a little different each day, so his or her threshold may change.

Therefore even experienced SLPs may end up having a toddler crying or shutting down during a session. This can be expected sometimes. However, it shouldn’t be happening all the time.

The majority of time should be spent having fun and communicating!

Finding the threshold may be tricky.

My rule of thumb - push or press a little, watch for any distress and then retreat or pull back a little BEFORE pushing and pressing some more.

If I treat a child and he or she hits a wall, I take it to mean that I pushed too far. I need to take a step back because I did too much too soon.

Effective speech therapy with toddlers is fun, but it’s also a balancing act.

You need to push or press your toddler or manipulate a variable to see progress but you shouldn’t push too far that you are causing a meltdown or shutdown.

3. Accept quiet times or quiet moments.

There will be times when your little one is just quiet.

Often times children are quiet when they are learning and processing new information. In my experience children are usually very quiet when introduced to a novel activity or toy.

That’s okay!  Continue to have fun and keep using your communication elicitation strategies.

Although, don’t be surprised when he or she blurts out a new word, the next time you re-introduce that toy or activity.

4. Reset expectations.

I need to lose some weight. I want to see results immediately.  In fact, I want to see results instantaneously.  Weight loss doesn’t happen like that though. Speech therapy is the same way.

It’s a marathon not a sprint.

5. Play. Play. Play.

If your child is showing signs of frustration, follow his lead and let him play how he wants to play. For a few moments, abandon any play routines you may have started. Join in his play and consider yourself a partner in his play.

If he is playing with his trucks, pick up another truck and copy what he is doing with his truck. Playfully push it around the room, up and down the sofas, under the table, and between the chairs. Being a partner in his play will make him feel super important and re-establish the rapport.

6. Get Moving.

When you have achieved some peacefulness, then gradually re-start your efforts to model or elicit engagement, attention, and communication.

Many times, this entails engaging the whole child - by this I mean, get him moving and grooving. Accordingly, “When language is combined with movement, learning increases 90 percent.” (Moyses)

Continuing with the truck example from point 5, encourage him to push the truck down the hallway and then race to get it before the truck crashes into the door. Take turns pushing and chasing after the truck. Or, have the trucks race down the hallway together as you try to catch them.

If you decide to do this, you can target all types of words and sounds like:

”Ready, set, go!”

“Vroom, vroom!”

“Go, go, go!”

“Beep, beep.”

“Oh no, crash!”

“Uh, oh, boom!”

7. Start With Something He or She Can Do or Say!

If your toddler is recovering from a meltdown or tantrum, it may not be the best idea to elicit words that he or she has never said before. A more rewarding and effective experience will be to have your toddler, say words or make signs that he or she has said or done in the past. But, your goal now is to get him or her to say these words more frequently or more consistently.

For instance, if you child has occasionally said “uck” for truck but doesn’t say this version of truck consistently. Then I would create multiple opportunities for him to say and repeat the word “truck”.

  • You can give choices, “Liam, would you like the dump truck or the fire truck?” Or, would you like this truck or that truck?”

  • You can use sentence completion tasks, “Liam, I can’t find your fire truck? Where is your fire truck? Oh, here’s your fire ________?

  • Use self-talk and parallel-talk and bombard your toddler with the word truck.

Once your toddler is saying a word more consistently and frequently, he will have a better, richer understanding of the word. The repeated practice strengthens the child’s underlying vocabulary system, priming them to learn more words. A child who knows and regularly uses the word truck will come to understand that a truck can be a fire truck, dump truck, cement truck, etc. I write about this in Part Three of My Toddler’s First Words: A Step-By-Step Guide to Jump-Start, Track, and Expand Your Toddler’s Language.

As always, I hope this post has been helpful!

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Moyses, K. (2012, May 30). Movement can increase learning in children.Retrieved from http://msue.anr.msu.edu