Teaching a Child to Take Turns

CME WebsitesBehavior, Social Graces

Opening the front door, pulling the plug in the bathtub, washing hands for dinner, turning the television off, having the blue cup, getting to cuddle with Daddy… these are just a few of the daily turn taking events that require intense intervention and cajoling in my household.

Once certain suggestions are made and the idea that one might get something more or better, or could possibly attain a higher level of independence and clout within the family, my children become incredibly eager and willing.

Other suggestions are made, such as tidying up the living room, and I’m lucky to even hear a peep let alone a cheerful, I do, I do! I’ve learned not to make suggestions, but rather to assign tasks, doing my best to remember which one it was that got to flip the light switch last or to choose the bedtime book last night. My sanity is sacrificed if I remember incorrectly!

Turn taking is a challenging, yet critical skill to teach our children. I’m reminded of a poster that used to hang in my dentist’s office that listed everything that the author learned in Kindergarten and how those skills transfer into adult life and our daily interactions.

Turn taking is among those skills. This is a skill that one carries from the sandbox to the boardroom and, certainly, into our personal adult relationships as well. I believe that the ability to take turns gracefully yet while effectively sticking up for your own needs, requires extensive prompting and coaching early on.

Turn Taking Games

Done properly, you can help prevent some of the hurt that will undoubtedly take place…both in the sandbox and in the boardroom.
Simple turn taking games should be part of daily play. This begins as early as Peek-a-Boo:

Mommy’s turn to hide, baby’s turn to giggle; Mommy’s turn to hide, baby’s turn to giggle. Even before Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders, there are simple and fun games that even very young children can play. My children love Crocodile Dentist and Kerplunk. These are both suggestions of games that require very little explanation of rules yet are hugely effective in encouraging waiting for and taking ones turn.

Turn taking can require some verbal and physical reminding. Remind your child that it’s Ava’s turn to go down the slide or Finn’s turn to spin the wheel.

Make the language of turn taking familiar and usable for your child. Even when stacking blocks, use simple language to describe turn taking: My turn, your turn. Frequently, pairing the verbal reminder along with a gentle physical reminder is necessary. Placing your hand on top of your child’s shoulder to stop them from grabbing or reaching is perfectly fine and effective.

Try not to get into lengthy explanations of why it’s not your child’s turn or how long they’ll have to wait for their turn with a particular item or activity.

Remember that they aren’t capable of understanding how long two minutes is and when they really want something, explaining that it’s not fair to snatch the truck out of Ben’s hand or asking them, “how would you feel if Lillie took the doll stroller from you?” aren’t effective ways of intervening.

Clear and concise language that they’re used to hearing is what’s effective: Lillie’s turn. Your turn is next. If you do choose to assign a time frame, be sure to use a visual or auditory timer to give a concrete cue of time.

Keep in mind that turn taking is a skill that you unknowingly model for your child from the very beginning. This happens when they observe you having a conversation with another adult, waiting in line at the grocery store, and waiting at a red light.

Call attention to the fact that you take turns, too. And don’t be afraid to admit that even you sometimes have a hard time waiting your turn…just like the poster says!

Toys for Turn Taking

  • Crocodile Dentist
  • Visual Time Timer
  • Programmable Electronic Timer
  • Audible Time Timer