Taking Turns Can Positively Impact a Child’s Language Development

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Paul Simeone, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

[This column was published in the Randolph Herald.]

It has long been established that there is a correlation between the number of words a child hears and his or her language abilities. Exposure to language is undoubtedly important. However, a recent study conducted by MIT cognitive scientists used brain imaging to specifically identify the value of turn taking – interactions that involve back-and-forth communication by both participants.

This study highlights the importance of a child’s participation in communication interactions as opposed to solely hearing words spoken to him or her. It showed that the areas of the brain involved in speech production and language development were more activated when the child took turns conversing with another person.

Taking Turns
Turn taking is the foundation of conversation.

Gestures, vocalizations, and signs count as turns. Children who are minimally verbal – who communicate in gestures, vocalizations, Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) tools, or eye contact – as well as preverbal children can all take turns when they are communicating. The important component is the act of going back and forth. Here’s an example:

  • Parent: Sees child looking at a playful dog, and waits with an expectant expression.
  • Child: Points
  • Parent: Points and says, “A doggy!” Waits expectantly.
  • Child: “Da!”
  • Parent: “What’s the doggy doing?”
  • Child: “Woo!”
  • Parent: “Yes! The dog is saying, ‘woof, woof!’”

You can encourage turn taking by:

  • Letting your child initiate (watch, wait, and respond to anything your child shows interest in);
  • Keeping your turn short and simple;
  • Setting up games or routines that encourage back-and-forth (i.e. tickles, peek-a-boo, etc.);
  • Waiting expectantly for your child to take a turn (i.e., raising eyebrows and hands to encourage a response);
  • Using visual cues to let your child know it’s his turn (e.g., using a gesture or picture to cue a child’s turn in a song);
  • Asking open-ended questions; and
  • Being cognizant of the pace of the exchange (each turn initiation can take as long as the child needs and parents should match the pace).

Parents and caregivers can encourage turn taking by tuning in and responding to their child’s interests and providing them with ample opportunity to communicate.

Dr. Simeone is Vice President of Allied Health and Supportive Technology for May Institute.

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, including one in Randolph, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit