4 Tips for Teaching Wait

Do you have a child who whines and cries when they want your attention? Do you ask them to wait and they continue to call your name? Here, we will cover 4 simple steps on how to teach your child to respond to wait appropriately. This is a practical life skill for all children and it gives some relief to parents when your child learns to wait appropriately.

Why Teach Waiting?

My daughter is tugging at my pants and whining because she wants me to pick her up. I am in the middle of cutting raw meat for dinner and can’t pick her up right now. She continues to whine and I become flustered and frustrated. I want to meet her needs at the moment, but I am also trying to make dinner. This often results in me picking her up (with clean hands), which reinforces the behavior. Situations like these remind me that my daughter needs to learn to wait for my attention.

I am in the car with my kids and on the phone. My 4-year-old son keeps calling my name, “Mommy, Mommy!” He gets louder as I don’t respond and his tone starts to shift to sound more frustrated. I tell him, “Please wait a minute” and hold up one finger to remind him to wait. He starts to whine and continues to call my name.

How many times have you been in a similar situation? I find myself in these situations often. What is the common problem? My children don’t understand or respond to the instruction of “wait” the way I want them to. The concept of “wait” is an abstract concept. It’s not something you can see, touch, or feel. It is a social rule that means you are expected to leave that person alone until they are ready to give you attention.

Waiting is a social skill that children and adults are expected to learn. Many times with our early learners we need to systematically teach them what waiting is. Explain what waiting means, show them what waiting looks like, and have them practice what you expect them to do when you ask them to wait.

Continue below to see how you can teach "wait" to your children at home. (Remember, every child is different and learns at their own pace. Some strategies work for some children and not for others. These strategies should be individualized to best meet your child's needs.)

Step 1: Use Visuals or Gestures

Using visual support is proven to promote development in the following areas: communication, social skills, joint attention, play, cognitive, school readiness, academic/preacademic, adaptive/self-help, and challenging/interfering behavior (https://ncaep.fpg.unc.edu/) for children with autism. Although it is an evidence-based practice (EBP) for individuals on the spectrum, it is also an effective strategy for all learners. I find this to be especially true for young children who may not fully understand what you are saying or it takes them longer to process what is spoken to them. Seeing a picture of the instruction helps to clarify the expectation.

Now a visual for teaching "wait" may be a picture or it may be a gesture such as holding up your index finger. I am currently teaching my daughter to respond to wait. Holding up my index finger when I tell her to wait is enough for her to understand. Most of the time when I am teaching wait to a child with special needs I will use a visual wait card and fade it over time. A visual wait card can also help because it gives the child something concrete to hold onto while they are waiting. See below for an example of a free wait visual you can use with your child.

When using a visual wait card I will tell the child to wait, present the wait card (or let them hold it), take the wait card back and say, "Nice job waiting!"

Wait Visual:

wait visual
Download PDF • 59KB

Step 2: Use social skills training to teach waiting

For more information on social skills training see my post here.

Explain: Explain what you will be practicing and why. This sets the stage for what you will be teaching. Adapt your language to meet the needs of your child. I am going to provide more information for my 4-year-old than for my 1-year-old. Let's use my 1 year-old as an example since this is something I am currently working on with her.

Example: I say, "We are going to practice waiting for mommy when I say, 'wait.' Sometimes mommy needs to finish doing something before I can pick you up."

You may provide more or less information based on what your child understands, but be sure to explain what you will be practicing and why. You may also check to see if your child understands by asking a follow-up question such as: "What are we going to practice?" or "Why do you need to wait sometimes?" My daughter is not at this level yet, so I will not be doing this.

Model: Show your child what you want him/her to do when you tell them to wait. Model what waiting looks like. (If your child doesn't have siblings you can use an adult to help model.)

Example: This is where my 4-year-old helps. I say, "Watch, your brother wants my attention and I am going to ask him to 'wait.'" (I also hold up y index finger as a visual. You can use a visual wait card if your child needs it.) He then waits while I pretend to finish something. When I am done I give him attention, "Thank you for waiting! What do you need?" My daughter is 18 months so I model more than one time.

Role-play: This is the most important part. Practice with your child what they are supposed to do when you ask them to wait.

Example: I setup a situation in which my daughter wants my attention and will have to wait. I have something she wants in my hands (crackers). When she starts calling for me or asking for the cracker I say, "Wait" and put my pointer finger up to indicate she needs to wait. After 1 second of waiting, I give her my attention, the cracker, and say, "Nice job waiting!" I am using the word "wait" or "waiting" when I give the instruction and when I give her my attention so she learns what the word means. I practice as many times as I can while I have her attention and interest. Then I try to work on it throughout the day. As she begins to understand I will increase the amount of time I expect her to wait.

There are still going to be times when I am meeting her needs right away and not expecting her to wait. Especially if she is hungry or tired.

Feedback: Tell your child how they did. When they wait appropriately give them lots of positive attention and correct them if they did not wait appropriately. If your child is delayed they may need a tangible reinforcer if they wait correctly to teach them that waiting is good. This tangible reinforcer can be faded over time.

Example: When my daughter waits for me or an item, after waiting appropriately I act excited and silly and give her the item or my attention. If she starts to cry, whine or tug at my pants I correct her with a neutral tone of voice and say, "No, please wait." I try to set her up for success by expecting her to wait for the amount of time I know she is capable of.

Generalize: Work on it throughout the day. You want your child to learn to respond to wait with different people and in different situations (i.e. mom, dad, relatives, siblings, in the car, grocery store, at home, etc.) Try to practice waiting throughout the day during naturally occurring situations.

Example: My husband practices this with her when he gets home from work. We then practice it throughout the day: when she wants my attention, a song on the tv, a snack, going outside, etc.

Step 3: Build on your child’s skills

There are a few things to keep in mind when teaching your child to wait.

Length of time they are waiting for:

Start with a small duration of time. When I start teaching wait, I expect the child to wait for 1 second. I know that sounds silly, but the repetition helps young children to learn the skill and understand the word, "wait." Once I know the child understands the word/concept of "wait" I increase the amount of time I expect them to wait. Some children understand the concept immediately and have self-control to wait for longer periods, while other children don’t have that tolerance built up yet. Start small and build up to a longer amount of time.

Make sure you aren’t expecting your child to wait longer than what is developmentally appropriate. (i.e. I don't expect my daughter to wait for minutes because she will not be successful.)

Time of day:

My children are more successful at waiting when they are well-rested and fed. I don’t work on waiting as much or expect them to wait as often or as long in the evening because they are tired and hungry. You know your child best and I’m sure you can identify times of the day when you know your child won’t be as successful with waiting. It’s okay to meet their needs immediately some of the time. Don’t always expect them to wait.

What are they waiting for? Again you know your child best. My children, and children I have worked with do better with waiting for something that is moderately preferred compared to something that is highly preferred when first learning. When it is something my daughter really likes, she struggles more with waiting. So I don’t’ expect her to wait as long for something she really wants or needs.

Step 4: Give it Time and Keep Practicing!

It’s okay if your child doesn’t pick it up right away. Our little learners are growing and developing daily and some concepts take longer than others. My son sometimes waits great when we practice, but not so much when we are in a natural situation. That’s okay. We keep role-playing to give him more opportunities to practice.

My son will also go through weeks or months where he is doing great with waiting and then he reverts to whining. I saw this when our whole routine was changed with COVID-19 shelter in place and also when his sister was born. We had to go back and practice waiting during these times.

Keep up the great work with your little one. :)

Until next time!

Educating Early