Model, Wait, and Reinforce:
3 Steps to Teach Your Child to Use a Word

Rogers Bridge » Receptive and Expressive Language Delays » Model, Wait, and Reinforce

One of the first strategies speech therapists use with a new client is to model, wait, and reinforce. This approach is highly successful for some children as it is a natural way of progressing to verbal language. While this may not work for all children, it is a good strategy to try with your child whether or not you are worried about their language development.


Most parents and caregivers have remarkably similar behaviors when a baby is in the house. From birth, phrases like “Hi baby! Mama is here,” or “Dada loves you,” are heard. In addition to hearing mama and dada frequently, these sound combinations are easy to produce and are usually a child’s first words. Learning words starts with modeling. Equally important is giving the child a chance to respond and reinforcing the response. It takes all three components to shape sounds into a word that has meaning to the child. 

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The 3 Step Method based on Positive Reinforcement

Creating positive and encouraging experiences for your child while learning new words could dramatically improve their adoption, retention, and repetition.

  1. Model: for a child most behaviors are learned by observing others during early development and parents can take advantage of this by modelling positive and desirable behaviors.

  2. Wait: consistently holding space and giving attention to a child provides the encouragement needed to repeat behaviors and improve their chances with owning new behaviors.

  3. Reinforce: acknowledging a child's efforts with praise goes a long way and could encourage bolder attempts in the future.

Model

Before your child could even speak, you modeled words for them whenever you spoke to your child or your child heard you talking to someone else. Narration is when you talk about everything that you are doing or what is going on in the environment. When you are at the store, you may tell your child, “Oh look at the pretty, red apples. Those will be yummy in your tummy.” Sometimes narration is enough for a child to develop language, but some children are unable to pick out words in a sentence to make sense of them. This is when modeling one word at a time is important.

 

Speech therapists use favorite activities to motivate and keep the child engaged. If you want the child to say, “ball,” give them the ball each time you model the word. Remember to have an excited voice and use expectant facial expressions to keep the child’s attention. After modeling the word for a while (this may be a few minutes or a few days), it is time to wait for the child to respond.

Using toys is a great method for modelling words and gives the opportunity for parents to engage and connect with the child based on their interests.

Using toys is a great method for modelling words and gives the opportunity for parents to engage and connect with the child based on their interests.

Wait

This can be the hardest part for some parents. Silence can be uncomfortable for anyone. It is assumed that someone is silent because they do not know what to say. This can be true but waiting gives the child time to process and figure out what you expect from them.

 

Give them time to come up with a response. I like to slowly count to 10 or 15 in my head. If the child still has not attempted to produce a sound or word, then you go back to modeling.

A child may be silent when (sometimes while still being active):

  • Processing what has been said and

  • Discerning between different words.

  • Internally rehearsing how to say the word.

Reinforce

This is difficult for many parents as well. You may not recognize your child’s first attempts at communication when it does not sound anything like a word. I like to relate this to learning how to run to help a parent understand the process of developing verbal communication.

 

Learning a word is similar to learning to run. A child does not start off running. A child will progress from crawling to standing, cruising to walking, and finally running.

 

A child learning to produce words is very similar:

  1. First children coo,

  2. then babble,

  3. then use word approximations (a shortened and easier to produce word),

  4. words,

  5. phrases,

  6. and finally sentences.

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Their first response is not likely to sound anything like the word you have modeled. Treat their response as if they have said the word. Clap, squeal, give them a high five, give them a kiss, or say, “Good job,” are perfect accolades to let a child know you are pleased with their response.

 

Be sure to also reward them with whatever word you are targeting. If you are working with a ball, give them the ball in addition to your excitement. This is how we shape sounds into having meaning for the child. The child does something, in this case it is an attempt to produce a word, and we reward them by our reactions to the word. This step is crucial in motivating verbal language. A child may not know the meaning of the sounds they have produced but they understand that you enjoyed it. This motivates the child to try again and again.

Once Complete: Repeat

This method is best used as a continuous learning cycle and when done with conscientious repetition will lead to long lasting results with less frustration for both parents and children. When first using the method only a single cycle may be necessary. As your child develops several cycles may be used simultaneously.

If your child is not following the typical progression of acquiring language, please call for a free phone consultation. We will help you determine if a speech language therapy is needed for your child. If you have tried the Model, Wait, and Reinforce strategy and it was unsuccessful, your child may benefit from speech language therapy.

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"My daughter has been seeing Ms Jessie for about four years, since She was in the Babies Can’t Wait program. Ms Jessie has been kind, friendly, Kid-centered, flexible, and has never given up on my daughter. To be able to serve a strongly oral averse child with health complexities for several years, to look into many different options so that my daughter would be okay with being in the same room where there was food, touch, smell, lick and so forth, to take a training course that would give her more tools to work with children like mine is the most incredible experience. My daughter is now feeding orally without the need for a feeding tube for  about eight months. Ms Jessie continues to help in increasing her food options with a fun, consistent and encouraging approach. We love having her as my daughter’s speech and feeding therapist." – Ana O.