Give Children The Language You Want Them To Use

Role Playing: Practicing What To Say

I played a lot of sports growing up. Soccer, field hockey, basketball — I can’t remember a day without practice or a game. To get better at dribbling with my left foot, I practiced. Free throws? Practice. Practice is essential to developing new skills and improving existing skills.

In my post, Can I Have A Lollipop? I mention the strategy of role playing. Keener and I do a lot of role playing as I try to help him develop new language, behavioral and social emotional skills. In essence, it’s a practice conversation ahead of the “big game.” For example, he doesn’t like leaving the park. When we are playing at our house, eating dinner, or driving in the car, I will casually bring up the scenario.

Keener, I know you have so much fun when we are at the park. When Mama tells you we are going to be leaving, it makes you feel sad and you want to stay at the park! Next time Mama tells you that we are going to be leaving, you could say, ‘I don’t want to leave, but Mama says it’s time to go. We will be back.’ or your could say, ‘Mama, I’m having so much fun. Can we come back to the park again soon?’  Let’s try it. Let’s pretend we are leaving the park, I’m going to say, ‘Keener, it’s time to leave the park. What could you say back?

By doing this, I am giving Keener the exact language that I want him to use the next time we are leaving the park. Chasing a toddler down a twisty slide or carrying one out crying and screaming is exhausting and an unpleasant experience for all parties involved. I also don’t want to resort to bribing him to listen to me, which I’ve had to do when I’m unable to play chase. Role playing situations that I know are triggers for Keener has led to fewer meltdowns, fewer bribes, and fewer “games” of chase.

Other situations where role playing has been helpful happen around the following times of the day:

  • Going to school — If you are feeling sad, you can say ‘I know Mama is coming back.’
  • Turning off the TV — I want to watch more. Can we pause this and watch more later?
  • Leaving a playdate — You can say, ‘I’m having so much fun. Can we come back?’
  • Staying with a new babysitter — You can say, ‘Mama, I want to be with you but I’m brave.’
  • Cleaning up toys in the play area — I don’t want to stop playing but I know I can play later.

Below are the steps I take for role playing:

  1. Pick a time/activity that is causing you and your toddler stress or anxiety
  2. Identify the words that you WANT your child to say back
  3. Find a time when you are hanging out and the mood is positive and upbeat — meals, playing with toys, in the bath, reading books, in the car, etc.
  4. Role play the stressful scenario. Describe for your child where you would be and what you would say to them.
  5. Give your child options for what they can say back to you
  6. Practice it. Say your lines and give your child the opportunity to practice responding.
  7. If they have the language, ask them if they have any other ideas for ways they can respond. Brainstorm together a list of possible responses they can give.
  8. Make a plan. Tell them, Next time we are _____, I expect you to respond with _____.
  9. Remind them, just prior to the stressful moment, of their options for response. If appropriate, make it game like. Okay we are on our way to the park. When mama tells you, ‘It’s time to go,’ what are you going to say today?! Will it be different than last time?
  10. Offer lots of praise when they are able to use one of the phrases you rehearsed. Wow! You said that just like we practiced and you’re right, we will come back to this park! When you listen to me and come when I call you, it makes me want to come back to the park all the time!

Give them the language you want them to use. And then practice it until it becomes a new habit.

I tried this strategy yesterday when it was time to turn off the TV. Before I turned the TV on, I said to Keener, When Mama says it’s time to turn the TV off, what are you going to say? I asked him to rehearse what he would say before the TV went on. That way, when the time came to end this highly preferred activity, he was armed and ready with a response: “Can we pause it so I can watch it later?” You bet buddy.

Finally, I often use children’s books to help reinforce whatever I am teaching Keener. A great one is, The Pigeon Needs a Bath. Since we have been working on having appropriate reactions when leaving fun places, this one allows us to use some humor to help diffuse the frustration as well. The pigeon spends the whole book not wanting to take a bath, only to realize how much he loves it. The books ends with him saying, “Can I stay in the bath, forever?” Therefore, Keener and I will often joke when we are leaving somewhere that he wants to stay there forever! Between rehearsing our lines ahead of time and using humor, he is learning the skills he needs to leave fun places without tears.

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  1. Jen, I love your blog, too, and think you could write a very successful book from all the excellent content. I have three children — ages 12, 10, and 5 — and plan to try some of your role modeling and sample language with my middle child. Although she’s older than your target audience, she suffers from anxiety, and I think role playing some of the language in advance (when she’s in a good mood) might help counteract the trigger situations.

    • Thanks so much Sarah! I’ve even used some of the strategies myself; preparing for an unexpected, unsettling, or non preferred event when feelings aren’t high takes the heightened emotion out of the equation. I just heard someone say, “Strike while the iron is cold,” which is a perfect way to think about it.

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