Helping Kids Wait With Language: Taking (Some) Struggles Away

One of the most difficult things for a child to do is wait.  There are two big reasons why this is really hard for kids. First, young children have a limited understanding of time concepts (e.g., before, after, until, soon, etc.) until around age 5, which means they have a difficult time understanding when things are going to actually happen. Second, children have difficulty regulating their behaviour. So even if they understand when certain things will happen, it can be hard to be patient, quiet and still until the waiting period is over.

In my therapy sessions I use pictures, schedules, timers and other tools to help kids understand what is going to happen and then to wait. These visual tools are always really helpful but it’s not realistic for me to have these kinds of things on hand for every situation.  And it’s certainly not realistic for the average parent to use  these kinds of things during typical daily life. So what do we do? Well, here are few tricks I have come up with that I use both in my therapy sessions and with my own kids.  These are the ones I have found to be the most successful and take a lot of the ‘pain’ out of waiting.

1)  First/Then

This is a great technique for children who have very little or no knowledge of time concepts and whose patience can be quite thin. I mainly use this when waiting for things that are coming shortly. For example, “first we put on a coat, then we go outside” or “first Tim goes on the slide, then your turn”. When your child asks again while they are trying to wait (as they inevitably do) just repeat the same first/then statement again in a calm way. This lets them know the plan is still the same and reassures them they will get what they are waiting for.

2)  Using Songs or Rhymes to Signal Time Durations

This technique is great for those short duration tasks that require kids to sit still and wait, for example brushing or washing hair, diaper changes or cutting finger nails. Choose a song or rhyme that lasts around 30 seconds – 1 minute. In our house we use ‘1, 2 Buckle My Shoe’. We start the rhyme at the beginning of the task and it ends when the task is finished. I adjust the speed as necessary, slowing down or speeding up how fast I say it to match the exact task duration. By using the same rhyme or song each time, children start to get a sense of how long something will take and knowing when the end is coming can take a lot of the stress out of waiting.

3)  Telling Stories

Telling stories is something you can do anywhere, anytime. Not only does telling oral stories benefit children’s expressive and narrative language skills, but it is also a super way to help kids wait. I find this technique is best used when waiting for things that take several minutes, for example waiting in line at the grocery store. In general, this works well with kids 3 and over, but my daughter enjoyed hearing stories at 2 ½ so it depends on the child. A few quick tips for great stories: make them surround your child’s interest, use gestures and sound effects to keep kids interested and ask them to join in and share their own ideas to build the story with you.

4)  Playing Games

Playing games with kids is great for so many reasons! Practice following directions, turn taking, vocabulary development, social skills, and so on. They are also great to do when kids are required to wait for longer periods of time (e.g., waiting for dinner at a restaurant, longer lines, etc.). There are so many games to play that require no materials. Here are some of our faves: Simon Says, I Spy, Paper-Rock-Scissors, Guess Which Hand Has It, Hot and Cold, Categories (name as many items as you can in a given topic) and How Many (guess the number then count things nearby).

5)  Making Expectations Clear

Sometimes it is not always possible for parents to give children their undivided attention for games or stories, and kids still need to wait. In this case I find it works best to help children understand exactly what is expected of them while you are busy. First, come down to your child’s level and make eye contact. Ensure you have their full attention. Then let them know you will be busy and they will have to wait for a bit. Now the most important part; outline exactly what ‘waiting’ means they do with their body. Do they need to stand or sit? Can they make a little noise or do they need to be quiet? Can they touch anything while waiting or not? Pick a few of the most important things they need to know to make waiting successful and then show them what you mean by modeling with your own body (Ex: “When you wait you need to stand beside mommy with your hands by your side. This is what my waiting looks like. Can you show me yours? Good. Now try and keep waiting until mommy is done. I’ll be as fast as I can.”).

A child’s ability to wait can depend on many things including age, energy level, time of day, fatigue, hunger, etc.. Knowing your child’s unique limits can also go a long way to helping them learn to wait.

Hopefully this article helps out with some of those everyday waiting struggles all parents go through. As always, I would love to hear your feedback on what works for you, what doesn’t and the unique things you are doing at home with your own kids!



  1. Lowry, Lauren (n.d.). What Is Behaviour Regulation? And What Does it Have To Do With Language Development. Retrieved online May 17, 2015:–And-What-Does-It-Hav.aspx
  1. Wiig, Elizabeth, Secord, Wayne, & Semel, Eleanor. (2004). Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals Preschool (2nd ed.). San Antonio, TX: Pearson, Inc.
  1. Miller, John & Paul, Rhea. (1995). The Clinical Assessment of Language Comprehension (pp. 137-163). Baltimore, MD: Brooks Publishing Co.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s