Oops, I Reinforced it Again

We all do it on a daily basis –we accidentally reinforce behaviors that we don’t like. The good news is that it is not too late to do something about it! With our little ones, especially those under 5 years of age, actions really do speak louder than words. Your child will respond to what you do 1000 times more than what you say (*see graphic above). So yes, you may say “we don’t throw”, but those words mean nothing if your actions don’t correspond. If your child’s unwanted behavior was effective in getting his or her needs met, then it will continue. So, in the example above, instead of throwing the bowl to get more food, he or she should pass you the bowl, say “more” or point to the wanted food, for example. We should not refill the bowl, until the child imitates the new, positive behavior that we model.

Let’s take a look at some real-life examples. Continue reading

Pragmatics: teaching social communication skills

Sometimes forget to talk about a major component to language: pragmatics or the rules for using language in different situations and with different people. Also known as social communication, pragmatics cover facial expressions, gestures, what to say and when to say it. Knowing and following these rules makes it easier for everyone to communicate.

There are three major social communication skills you can teach your little one:
1. Using language for different reasons: whether you’re informing, requesting or demanding, it implies a different way of communicating.
2. Changing language for the listener or because of the situation: talking differently to a child than to an adult, skipping details when someone already knows what you’re talking about, talking differently depending on the place you’re at.
3. Following rules for conversations: these include taking turns to speak, staying on topic, knowing how close to stand to someone while talking, etc.

It’s totally normal and even expected for children to break some of these rules while they are still learning them. Some kids can’t filter what they say –so if you want an honest answer about your outfit, ask your little one! Although your toddler’s lack of social communication skills can sometimes be uncomfortable or embarrassing for you, remember that it’s a learning process and simply find a time to point out why what she said was improper and what she could have said instead.

On the other hand, if your daughter is having trouble with conversational skills, make sure to give her a lot of chances to practice. Before you begin a conversation, say something about the topic you want to talk about so that she knows what you’re interested in discussing. This might help her stay on topic. Ask questions about it so that she carries on with the conversation. You can also teach her about nonverbal communication and how sometimes facial expressions can tell us more about what someone is trying to say. Look at pictures of faces with different expressions and have your little one try to identify what the person might be feeling.

Language milestones: answering simple questions

You might be wondering when will your little one begin to verbally answer to your questions. It’s not an easy task! It requires your son to understand what you’re asking, process the question, formulate an answer and then verbally communicate it. It all depends on what questions you’re asking, so it’s a good idea to know what kind of questions you should ask and expect an answer to, depending on your child’s age.

At one or two years of age, children use a lot of gestures to communicate. For example, a child might answer a simple “where” question like “where’s the cat?” by pointing in its direction. He might also answer yes/no questions with a head nod or shake. As for asking questions themselves, one or two-year-olds begin to use pitch to communicate that they’re asking something (the pitch goes up at the end). Two and three-year-olds verbally answer and understand simple “where”, “what” and “who” questions and begin to ask questions related to their wants and needs. For example, your little one might ask “where mommy?”. By three or four, children may begin to answer more complex questions like “when”, “why” and “how”, and in turn, he might use them to formulate questions himself.

To get your son to practice answering questions, ask him many questions that are similar, but change the first word. For example, you might ask:
“What did you play with?”
“Where did you play?”
“Who did you play with?”
“When did you play?”
“How did you play?”
“Why did you play?”

That way, you’ll find out what your little one really understands. If he answers something incorrectly, you can explain and then work on those specific questions later on.

Language milestones: speak using plurals

When we use the plural form of a noun, we indicate that we’re talking about more than one person or object. Most of the time, the plural form of a noun is produced by simply adding “s” at the end of the word. This is referred to as the “regular plural”. Most children master the use of the regular plural between 27 and 36 months of age. When first beginning to use plurals, most toddlers use it on select, frequently used words. With time, they extend that rule to other nouns. This may lead to incorrect use of the regular plural, like saying “foots” instead of “feet”.

For a long time, researchers have been interested in how children extend the rules of grammar to new words. In 1958, psychologist Jean Berko Gleason developed the now famous Wug Test. In it, children were shown a sketch of a flame-shaped bird and were told that it was a “wug”. Then, they were shown another “wug” and told “Now there is another one. There are two of them. There are two ___”. The children responded, like you and I would, “wugs”. This study clearly showed that children don’t memorize the plural form of certain words, instead they learn and apply grammatical rules. They couldn’t have memorized the word “wugs” because they had never heard it before!

Help your daughter learn to use the plural form of nouns by practicing at home! Begin with simple two-word phrases. You can show her one thing, like an apple and say “one apple.” Then show her another apple and say “two apples”. Repeat this a couple of times and let her give it a try. Do the same with other objects, emphasizing the “s” at the end of the word so she can hear it. You can also point out the plurals that appear in a story during reading time. Ask your little one “What are those?” and see if she answers using the plural form of the word. If she doesn’t, simply say it yourself and explain why we use the plural form of the word.

Language milestones: learning to use pronouns

Pronouns are words used instead of specific nouns. They give us information about the gender or number of people or objects being referred to. There are different types of pronouns. Subjective pronouns like I, you, he, she, it, we and they, are used as the subject of a sentence. For example, “We went to the park”. On the other hand, objective pronouns like me, you, him, her, us and them, are used as objects in sentences. For example, “The baby liked him”. Normally, kids learn to use subjective pronouns before objective ones and by the time they turn three, they’re using them in sentences.

Pronouns may seem like simple words, but they actually are pretty complex concepts to grasp because they mark a difference between the speaker and the others. Also, the terms change depending on who is using them! With time your son will practice and learn every rule, until it comes naturally. For now, keep in mind that it is totally normal for him to use pronouns incorrectly sometimes, especially if he is using them with verbs and other nouns or referring to himself.

If you’d like to help your little one learn to use pronouns properly, the first thing you should do is consciously use them yourself when you talk! For example, instead of saying “Mommy is very proud!” say “I am very proud!”. Make sure he’s getting a lot of exposure to pronouns. To get him to practice, have him make up sentences with subjective pronouns (sentences that start with he, she, they or it). Do this while reading a story and have your little one describe what the characters are doing. For example, “He is jumping on the bed”.

The process of learning to use pronouns correctly can be a bit challenging for some kids. Just make sure your son gets a lot of practice and with time he’ll get the hang of it.

Tips for having meaningful conversations with your child

You talk to your daughter every day, some would say all day! But how much of that talk makes up meaningful conversations? A conversation is a back and forth exchange between two or more people. Your little one says something and first you listen. Then, you respond while she listens. You give her time to respond and so on and so forth in a serve and return pattern. Conversations can be about anything at all –from her favorite character to your plans for the weekend. The important thing is to talk with your daughter, and not just at her.

Having meaningful conversations with your child will build her confidence and self-esteem because she’ll learn that you care about her and are interested in her thoughts and feelings. She’ll also learn to become an effective communicator while building her vocabulary and language skills. Here are a few tips to get those conversations going:

• Find time to talk to your daughter without any distractions around (cellphone included!). Give her your undivided attention.
• If you are in the middle of something and your little one wants your attention, try and stop what you’re doing to listen. A few minutes of your full attention will go a long way.
• Be patient. Give her time to respond. A quiet pause will give her time to organize her thoughts and get back to you.
• Have a special time during the day when you talk in a meaningful way and are conscious about it. Talking about your day can become a part of your bedtime routine, for example.
• Keep an eye on your child’s body language and facial expressions to really comprehend what she’s trying to say.
• Respect her thoughts and feelings. Regardless if you think she is right or wrong, listen and respond letting her know you hear her.
• Ask open-ended questions that require more than a simple yes or no answer, and do the same with your responses, practice saying more than that yourself!

Boys’ and girls’ brains process language differently

It’s not uncommon to hear that, usually, girls have superior linguistic skills than boys, and for some time it wasn’t clear why or how their brains differed. In 2008, researchers were able to study brain activity in girls and boys and the results showed that the brain areas associated with language work harder in girls during language tasks because, in fact, they rely on different parts of the brain to complete these tasks.

This study, conducted by researchers from Northwestern University, provided clear biological evidence of the differences in language processing between girls and boys. Researchers measured brain activity in 31 boys and 31 girls between the ages of 9 to 15, while they performed language tasks like spelling and writing. Sometimes, the tasks were visually presented and the children had to read the words, and sometimes the cues were auditory. The found that girls’ language areas of the brain were significantly more active than boys’. Meanwhile, in the boys’ brains they found that their visual and auditory cortex were doing most of the work. Their findings suggest that language processing is more sensory based for boys, and more abstract for girls.

Other studies point out that girls’ brains have sort of a “head start” on language development because their left hemisphere (where most people’s language center lies) develops before the right. For boys though, it’s reversed, their right hemisphere develops first. Girls talk earlier than boys, have larger vocabularies when they reach preschool and they use more complex sentences. Once they reach school age, girls are normally one to one-and-a-half years ahead of boys in reading and writing skills. The list of differences goes on and on. Keep in mind that these studies focus on group averages, and what could be true for that group might not be true for every individual.

With this in mind, you could pay special attention to fostering your son’s language skills early on. Experiences play a huge role on how the brain is wired, especially in the first years of life. Take a look at other articles about this topic to get ideas on how to encourage language development at home.

Language milestones: others can understand what my daughter says!

There was probably a point in which you were the only one that could decipher what your little one was trying to say –it might even have been not so long ago! With time and practice, your daughter’s pronunciation is getting better and better, making it easier for other people to understand her!

This milestone, like many others, is reached gradually –it’s not like people will be able to understand what your little one is trying to say overnight. For most children, this happens around their third birthday, but there is a lot of variation when it comes to language development at this age, so you may notice it evolving before or after that. This milestone is not only exciting for you and the people who can now understand your kid, it’s important because it plays a key role on a social and emotional level as well. Being able to communicate with the rest of the world will open doors for her and a lot of learning will come with that!

If your daughter is having trouble getting her message out to the rest of the world, try working on her pronunciation. To help her, be a good role model yourself! Speak clearly and slowly. Sometimes, children are so excited that they talk really fast, making it hard for others to understand them. You can also help out by using the correct names for things and not nicknames that only you and your child know. Another good idea is to teach her to use gestures as aids to get her message across. If she points to what she’s trying to get someone to look at, it’ll make it easier for everyone.

Remember that every child develops at his or her own pace –and it might take a while before your daughter can effectively communicate with the rest of the world. For now, be patient and engage with her. Let her know that what she has to say is important by listening to her and then asking questions about it. If your little one feels like she’s good at communicating, then she’ll be more motivated to try it with everyone else.

Tips for teaching listening skills

As your preschooler’s vocabulary expands, he’s able to understand more complicated language about different topics. Your little one is also able to grasp the meaning of longer and more complex sentences, like a set of instructions with three steps. Sometimes though, the difficult part is getting your toddler’s attention so that he actually listens to what you’re saying. Listening is an important skill that is completely interwoven with language development and, like any other skill, it needs to be practiced and perfected.

Here are a few things you can try at home that might help your son (and you!) out:
1. Speak in clear and simple sentences. Even though, as we stated before, your preschooler can now understand more complex sentences, if you’re having trouble getting him to follow instructions, try making them shorter or have him do them in parts.
2. Make eye-contact. When talking to him about something important or when giving him instructions, it’s a good idea to get down on his level and make eye-contact. This will help you make sure you’ve got his attention. Once you do, then proceed with your conversation.
3. Make your expectations clear. Sometimes we feel that we’ve explained ourselves a thousand times to our kids, but we really haven’t or maybe not in a way that they understood. Let your son know your plans ahead of time, make your expectations clear so that he knows what’s coming and what he’s expected to do.
4. Practice listening through games! Enhance your little one’s listening skills by making him notice a sound that’s far away. For example, ask him to listen to the garbage truck passing by. Can he hear it? Sit still and listen quietly yourself so that he can follow your example. Take turns pointing out different sounds you can make out.

Quality interactions enhance language development

You’ve probably been told that the best way to stimulate your little one’s language development is by talking to her all the time. And that advice is sort of true. Research has shown that kids who hear more words from their caregivers have better language skills and academic performance. But a more recent study found that it’s the way you interact with your child that makes the difference.

The study, led by Dr. Kathy Kirsh-Pasek of Temple University, looked at 60 low-income families and how the parents interacted with their children when they played or read a book. Researchers watched recordings of 60 mothers playing with their two-year-olds and they counted how many words the little ones heard during the interaction. They then compared those interactions to the children’s language skills when they turned three. They found that the quality of interactions between parents and children mattered more than the number of words they heard. The children with better language skills had interactions that involved:
• Joint attention. When a child and parent pay attention and communicate about the same thing, they share joint attention. This engagement helps children learn new words because the adult provides the words for the actions and objects they are engrossed with. For example, if you’re playing with a doll and your daughter points to a bottle, then you can say “Do you think she’s hungry? Let’s give her the bottle.” And proceed to feed the doll.
• Repetitiveness. Children love repetition. They thrive on routines because they know what to expect, what’s coming next. Everyday routines help them learn new words as well because the repetitiveness makes it easier for them to learn and remember them. You can incorporate routines into your playtime or have one for bath and bedtime too.
• Connectedness. When parents connect with their children during interactions, they take turns, listen and participate equally. This motivates children to interact for longer periods of time and therefore gives them a better chance of learning.

Talking a lot to your daughter and repeating a lot of words over and over isn’t enough. It’s the interaction that counts –quality interactions. Connect with her and tune into what she is doing and trying to communicate. That will go a long way towards her language development.