Your toddler doesn’t use many words. If he has an older, very talkative sibling in the house you may have been told that this could be the problem…she is doing all of the talking for him. So, you try to tell her to please let her brother have a turn to say a word. She can’t seem to do that. She wants to help. She wants him to talk. She wants to give him what she knows he needs and wants. She’s his lifeline to the world of communication!
I love that. Let’s use that. She just needs some tools, some strategies…a game plan.
I often ask older siblings for their ideas about how to help their little brother say stuff or even just make sounds. Their little brothers love to watch them, imitate them, be like them. That’s hugely motivating!
In my experience, I’ve seen older siblings help little ones learn to use sign language, make meaningful sounds, say names of TV show characters that I never would’ve even known to try, produce new sounds accurately, and can sometimes even get their younger sibling to say a new word just by saying “say ______“. This never works for anyone else. Ever.
Older siblings who are learning about letter sounds or are beginning to read are even great helpers when it comes to identifying the sounds that the little one might be leaving out or saying incorrectly. Encouraging the older sibling to identify and emphasize those sounds can help BOTH siblings learn. Example: Did you hear how your little brother said “doh” instead of “go”? What sound do you think he needs to change? Right. The “g”. That’s the sound that G makes.
Rather than telling an older sibling to stop talking and give the little one a chance, empower that older sibling to help. ASK THEM what they think might work to help their little brother make more noise or say more words. They might tell you that their little brother always makes farting noises whenever they do! Well, it’s a start.
Recently I had the opportunity to work with an older brother, let’s call him Jack. He was his little brother’s favorite playmate. Let’s call the little brother Max. During the session I spent a lot of time with Jack talking about how he could simplify words into sounds so that Max might be able to say things just like him. Jack was able to figure out that instead of saying train he could say “choo choo” and instead of saying dinosaur he could “ROAR!” Then we spent time chasing Max around with his shopping cart and saying “ready, set….” Jack easily figured out that he should let Max finish the phrase with “GO!” Jack was so on board with everything that we were doing he even took the lead for the next 5-10 minutes. Mom and I were an afterthought at best. Speech “therapy” was happening without the therapist. Yes!
Near the end of my time at their house, I asked Jack what he thought worked well and what he would like to keep doing with Max in order to help him talk more. I was expecting him to say “use sounds” or “let Max finish phrases we say all the time”. Instead, here was his response:
Yep. That’s what he said. I was slightly confused and a little disappointed that my strategies weren’t immediately embraced.
I responded, “You want to practice magic tricks to help Max talk more?”
Jack: “Yep, it’s just like magic.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Jack: “Well, when we were running around with the shopping cart we were like saying the things he should find. Then I kind of took things away, hid them again, and he had to say something if he wanted it back. Like magic.”
I started to get it.
Me: “I think I understand. You want to make things disappear and Max can make them reappear when he uses a sound or a word?”
Jack: “Yep. Like magic.”
Makes perfect sense. Why didn’t I describe it this way to begin with? Jack loved magic. He made sense of what I was trying to help him learn by associating it with his favorite hobby! When they were searching for objects to put in the shopping cart Jack would call out (in a sing song voice) “ba-aall” and “do-ggy”. Max would imitate, not with an exact word, but definitely using that same sing song voice. He was trying. That’s what was important. He wanted to be like his brother. He wanted to make that object appear. He wanted to see the magic trick! Give an older sibling the right tools and they can be a powerful and motivating teacher for the younger sibling.
Sure, it might start with just imitation of farting noises or dinosaur roars, but older siblings understand silly. Sometimes silly is what gets the magic started.
Tips for empowering the older sibling who wants to help:
- Ask what she does that the little one always try to do just like her
- Ask what she does that make the little one laugh
- Ask if she knows what some of the little one’s sounds or gestures mean
- Show her how to use a single word to confirm the meaning of that sound or gesture
- Encourage her to sing and teach her little sibling the songs she knows
- Praise her efforts to encourage imitation and not just provide interpretation
Want to know more about a toddler’s speech?
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