Taking turns is a huge childhood accomplishment in interacting and socializing with others. Arguably one of the biggest accomplishments. The ability to cooperate in give-and-take exchanges is fundamental to social development and communication. Think about board games, children playing pretend, shopping, and having conversations. All these social interactions are built on taking turns.
In a conversation, turn-taking happens when one person listens while the other person speaks. As the conversation goes on, the listener and speaker roles switch back and forth. This is the basis of a circle of discussion.
Children who struggle with turn-taking in social situations may also experience trouble building friendships in class.
Does Turn-Taking Need To Be Taught?
Turn taking is fundamental in human interaction. Even in infancy, babies utilize turn-taking and respond to parental talk and gaze. But for the most part, turn taking isn’t an innate skill – it needs to be taught, especially for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities.
According to new findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), it takes children until they are about 5 years old to learn to take turns with others.
The findings show that 5-year-olds are better able to use turn-taking strategies than younger children, suggesting that the skill emerges as children’s cognitive abilities mature.
“Although young children may be able to engage in reciprocal interactions that are driven by past events – ‘She was nice to me, so I will be nice to her now’ – this study shows that they are not able of prospective turn-taking and understanding the long-term benefits of taking turns,” says lead researcher Alicia Melis of Warwick Business School in the UK (via APS).
6 Strategies To Teach Turn-Taking
There are many fun and different techniques that may be effective for children, depending on their unique learning styles. Here are 6 strategies for your family to try at home:
1. Read A Book Or Social Story
Books are interactive and demand that kids think. They broaden our horizons and give us new ideas and new ways to think. Reading has also been shown to increase empathy especially when books are read about people who are different from us. When we read a story about someone else’s experience we can begin to think about and understand what it must feel like to be in their position. That’s why books with themes of sharing and turn-taking are an awesome and engaging way to introduce those concepts.
Some books about sharing you should check out are:
- Llama Llama Time to Share by Anna Dewdney
- Sharing Time by Elizabeth Verdick
- We Share Everything by Robert Munsch
Books are great for kids of all ages and backgrounds. But kids with special needs and exceptionalities or learning and intellectual disorders may require more focused stories called social stories. Social stories explain social situations to children and help them learn socially appropriate behaviour and responses. They were initially developed to teach children with autism and other developmental disabilities about the social behaviour that’s expected in specific settings like the supermarket, doctor’s surgery, playground and so on. A social story can be created for almost any social situation.
Check out this social story video about sharing, by Little Mixers, that you can read to your child:
2. Model Turn Taking
Modelling, or showing by example, can be a very effective way to teach your child many different skills, including how to take turns, as most children learn by imitating.
Show your child how you are taking turns when having a conversation or playing a game. Enlist the help of a sibling, another child, another parent, or family member and act out appropriate behaviour.
3. Use Simple Language And Other Cues
Routinely use simple language to describe turn-taking, like “my turn” and “your turn”. If your child isn’t yet familiar with the possessives “my” and “your”, you can start with names: “Daddy's turn”; “Jojo’s turn”. Using this simple language routinely helps to make these terms familiar, easy, and usable for your child.
It may be helpful to pair the verbal reminder with other cues like physical and visual cues. For example, if your child skips your turn, you can use a physical cue and place your hand on theirs and say “my turn”. You can also use visual cues by gesturing or using photos or symbols to indicate whose turn it is, how many turns are left, and whose turn it is next.
4. Use a Timer
In some situations, such as taking turns to share, using a timer can be helpful to indicate when each person’s turn is up. This may be more suitable for older children who have a better concept of time, or are beginning to learn the concept of time.
Tips for using a timer:
- Use a timer with more visual components
- Have your child confirm the rules to better internalize it (“when the timer rings, it’s Mommy’s turn”)
- Give count down warnings (“my turn in 3... 2... 1”)
5. Use A Talking Stick
(Photo via Seven Oaks)
Turn-taking happens naturally in a conversation, but some children (and some adults too, am I right?) may dominate the conversation, not being aware of the listener’s response. You can try using a talking stick, or any designated object, where a person can only speak if they are holding the object.
Fun fact: Did you know that the talking stick is used in many Indigenous cultures? It’s an ancient and powerful communication tool that ensures a code of conduct of respect during meetings is followed. Many classrooms have adopted the talking stick principles as a way to teach children patience, self-discipline and to respect the speaker and their words. Additionally, children are learning about Indigenous cultures in a tangible way.
6. Learn Through Play
For children, learning through play is often the best way to learn and practice new skills. Learning turn-taking through play is no exception, and there are many fun ways to practice!
Board games are a fun, structured way to work on turn taking. Ker Plunk and Candyland are great games for beginners. These games are structured, yet do not involve too many rules.
You can also easily incorporate turn-taking in less structured activities, such as building a block tower. By age 3, children are able to build a tower 10 blocks high, and taking turns with a play partner to add a block to the tower can be a fun way to work towards a common goal.
Another super simple activity you can start with is simply rolling a ball or object back and forth. This facilitates the skills needed to teach the back-and-forth dynamics of conversation and eventually prospective turn-taking.
Here's a tossing game you can play to encourage turn-taking using our Organic Rattle Cubes!
About the author:
Sam is Jenny & Andy’s Marketing Coordinator. Before she joined Jenny & Andy, she was a speech therapy associate and behaviour therapist who spent 5 years working with young toddlers with autism and other exceptionalities and their families.
Her therapy sessions required her to work collaboratively with Speech-Language Pathologists, Board Certified Behaviour Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Teachers, and Registered Early Childhood Educators.
Association for Psychological Science (2016)
Children Learn to Take Turns for Mutual Gain
Clark, E. and Lindsey, K. (2015)
Turn-taking: a case study of early gesture and word use in answering WHERE and WHICH questions
Holler, J. et al. (2015)
Editorial: Turn-Taking in Human Communicative Interaction
Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. (2015)
First Nation Talking Stick Protocol
Rogers, S. et al. (2012)
An Early Start For Your Child With Autism