Taking turns is something that all young (and some not so young!) children find difficult. It can be particularly challenging for children with language difficulties. Language delay can often mean that social interaction is a little delayed as well. Turn-taking is something I often suggest for nursery staff to work on with a preschool child.
This sounds like a small target, but it is actually huge! There are different types of turn-taking. For example, taking a turn in a game is different from taking a turn in a conversation. Both of these are different from just understanding that you may not be able to have the same toy all day long and someone else might want a turn with it too! Similarly, taking turns with an adult is different from taking turns with another child, and both of those are different from taking turns in a group. So where do we start?
It’s usually best to start with taking turns in a game with an adult, then move on to the same thing but with another child instead. Here are some ideas and tips to help.
- Think about what game you are playing. Start with something very simple, motivating and with very short turns. Some examples might be rolling a ball back and forth, pushing cars down a run or putting bricks on a tower. (If the child you are working with doesn’t enjoy these, find something else simple that they do enjoy). The main thing is that each turn only takes a second or two. This means that the child only has to tolerate a very short time when it is not their turn.
- Aim for just 2 or 3 turns to begin with. If your child is not able to take turns at all, they are not going to be able to sit and play a long game the first time. Just start with 2 or 3 turns and build up from there.
- Use simple language as you play the game. Repeat the same words and phrases over and over again. For example, “Helen’s turn”, “Charlie’s turn” (or whatever the child’s name is!), “again”, “more ball”. Don’t expect your child to use the language themselves to begin with, but keep showing them the language that goes with turn-taking at a level they can understand.
- Join in with what your child is playing with. They are more likely to join in with you if they were already focused on the game or toy in the first place. If they are building, get down next to them, take a brick and add it to their tower. Then say “Charlie’s turn”.
- If your child gets cross, stop. Turning it into a battle of wills is not going to help! Just keep trying, once a day or once in each nursery session. One day they might surprise you.
- Give additional support if they need it. Some children will still find this too difficult and will need a second adult to support them. I appreciate that this can be difficult to do, but try to find just a couple of minutes when you can have a second adult available. Get the second adult to sit behind the child and prompt them subtly if needed. For example, if you are rolling a ball and the child throws the ball, the second adult might bring it back and put it in the child’s hand. Then they can take the child’s hand and gently help them to roll it back. Once they understand what is expected, they may start to do it for themselves.
One final thing. Some children (particularly, but not exclusively, those on the autistic spectrum) are very absorbed in their own world and just find anyone interfering in their play very stressful and upsetting. If your child is in this category, they may not be ready for turn-taking yet. Instead try some of the tips in this post instead. You can come back to turn-taking later on when they are ready.