When I first started as a therapist, I felt like every minute of the session had to be filled with chatter… and that chatter usually ended up being mine. I assumed that any “dead air” would make the parents think that I was being lazy, or wasn’t doing my job, or didn’t plan enough for the session. Big mistake! In those first years, I missed so many opportunities to just wait it out. I jumped in before even giving the child a chance to breathe, let alone respond. In fact, it’s almost impossible to OVERestimate the amount of processing time a child needs.
We (adults) process faster than children do because our brains have had the experience of years and years of context and making connections. If I start to ask you a question, you can probably predict how the question will end and start formulating your answer before I even finish the sentence. We are fluent language users. The child is still learning.
When we jump in too early and/or repeat too frequently, we:
Don’t know what the child is really capable of. If I never give him a breath to answer, how will I know if he really could have done what I asked him to do?
Cheat the child out of the opportunity to think and struggle through a hard problem. Maybe he’ll get it. Maybe he won’t, and it will turn into a great opportunity to practice self-advocacy skills. Whatever the outcome, it’s a learning opportunity that would be missed without giving adequate wait time.
Condition the child to expect a repetition. Why listen the first time if everyone in your environment is constantly repeating things for you? The only problem with this is… what happens in the real world when people don’t constantly repeat? Then, you’re in big trouble! Don’t create a situation like this in your home or therapy room. We want to model real world communication!
So what should we consider when waiting a child out?
Observation is participation. If the child is still looking and engaged, then we will keep waiting and assume that he is processing the information. If the child looks away or otherwise becomes distracted, then it’s time to repeat or do something to draw him back in.