The Waiting Game

Many auditory verbal techniques are not rocket science.  They’re simple suggestions and tweaks to your everyday routines — little changes that can make a BIG difference in your child’s ability to listen and talk.  What’s one of the hardest of these little challenges?  Learning how (and when) to wait!


Adults who are fluent speakers of the language (any language) make decisions about what to say and how to say it in milliseconds.  Our brains are constantly calculating and we rarely even realize it.  Because we have such facility with language, we severely underestimate just how much time a child’s brain needs to take in, process, and respond to new information.  All children need more wait time than adults, but for children with hearing loss, , this wait time is even more crucial.


When we pose a question, introduce a new vocabulary word, or model a sentence for the child, it’s important to present the information once and then wait, wait, wait for him to give a response.  Wait… wait a little more… wait until it hurts… and then and only then, repeat yourself.  Why?  We’re preparing children to use their listening, language, and speech skills in the real world.  While mom and dad may be willing to endlessly repeat until you get it, your teacher in school won’t, and your boss won’t, and the clerk at the store won’t, either.  It’s important for children to learn to listen the first time, not rely on the fact that a sympathetic communication partner will have the patience to give multiple repetitions.  If you’re always giving multiple repetitions, why would the child listen the first time?  It’s not being bad or lazy on his part, he’s just learning a pattern and taking the path of least resistance.  It makes sense.


It’s also important for the child to learn to trust his hearing, to rely on his auditory skills.  If the child seems confused or does not understand the information, ask, “What did you hear?” not, “What did I say?”  “What did I say” encourages the child to guess or to fill in the blanks.  “What did you hear?” teaches him to trust his hearing and also gives us important diagnostic information about the child’s auditory abilities.  Maybe he really did mishear.  Maybe he’s having trouble distinguishing between two different phonemes (speech sounds), maybe it’s time for a new cochlear implant MAP.


Another benefit of increasing wait time is that it builds the expectation for the child that communication is a two-way street.  It’s not a true conversation if the adult is just repeating, repeating, repeating all of the time.  Pause and give the child a chance to contribute at whatever level he may be able to.  Expect the child to participate, and give him space and time to do so.


When deciding whether or not to repeat a direction, it’s also important to remember that, for young children especially, sometimes observation is participation.  If you give a direction and the child is still making eye contact with you or looking at the object/toy being discussed… wait!  He may just be processing and considering his options.  Only when he gets distracted or looks away should you give the direction again to draw his attention back to the task.  Remember, learning language is big work!  Give that little brain some time to soak it in and the space for trial and error to figure it out by himself.  That’s where the real, lasting learning happens.


Waiting is hard, really hard.  Whether you’re a naturally patient person or not, increasing the amount of wait time you give a child is a simple fix that can have a big payoff.  Challenge yourself this week to hold your breath for just ten or fifteen seconds more before you hit the “repeat” button, and see what changes you can observe in your child!

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