Teaching Your Child How to Wait

Community Member

One of the hardest skills for a child who has attention problems is to learn to wait.   But when you think about it, learning to wait is a critical skill for any child to have any measure of success at school.   It is also essential in developing good relationships and for making life at home much easier.

If a child is unable to wait they will act out their frustration in tantrums and meltdowns.   I know this first hand because my son had an extreme problem with knowing how to wait for things.   We would have daily tears over things such as my needing to talk on the phone, waiting his turn in lines, or waiting for a movie to begin.   Part of this frustration was due to my son's poor impulse control, his inability to understand time in any concrete way, and not understanding the rules and protocols of waiting.

One of the simplest ways to begin to teach a young child to wait is through the use of a visual and something reinforcing or rewarding to your child.   On this web page  there is a "wait" icon for you to use in your teaching.   Choose an activity or object that your child enjoys and find a photo or picture representing that activity or item.   Show the "wait" icon along with the picture of the reward.   Tell your child that you and she or he are going to wait (specify the amount of time and for a young child this will be seconds) and then they can have their reward.   Praise your child for good behavior during the waiting time.   If the child cannot show good behavior try again for a shorter period until you have success.   Then gradually extend the time your child has to wait for the reward.

Another way to help a child learn to wait is to begin teaching them about time telling skills right away.   To some children the words, "five minutes" means nothing because they don't know how long that is.   Some children do well with digital clocks.   There is also a wonderful device called a "time timer" which shows the amount of time passing as well as providing an audible sound when the time is up.

For other children more direct cues may be necessary such as having them count to a certain number while waiting or even playing a series of songs.   When the counting is finished or the songs are over then it is time to transition to the next activity.

Some children may be helped by visual spatial cues in order to wait.   Circle time in preschool or kindergarten can be a difficult time for children who have attention problems because there can be a lot of waiting for all the children to get settled before the teacher begins.   The fact that the children quite often sit on the floor can sometimes present problems as well for the child who has learning disabilities.   The children who have attention problems may be found wandering or even rolling around on the floor because they have no visual cues of where they are supposed to be. What can help in this situation is to set a mat on the floor with the child's name on it to sit upon.   This gives the child a clearly marked space for them to wait.

Taking turns is a form of waiting which should also be taught.   I found that the game of "Don't Break the Ice" is an excellent game for teaching waiting in between turns.   Each player gets a mallet where you take turns tapping out plastic "ice" without causing the center ice-cube with the figure perched on top to fall down.   Of course my son wants to forget all about taking turns so he can smash all the ice blocks with his hands.   What we did was to take a photo of my son and a photo of whomever else is playing.   On the top of the photo, for example, we wrote the words, "Mommy's turn" and "My turn" for my son.   For each turn we would ask, "Whose turn is it?" and show the visual photo cue to elicit either "My turn" or the name of the other player if it was their turn.   In time my son learned the rhythm of taking turns during games.

Teaching a child how to play independently will also help a child to learn to wait.   There are times when you cannot provide one on one attention to your child such as when you are preparing meals, talking on the phone, or doing chores.   It is usually during these times (I personally call the time before dinner the witching hour) when bad behavior is seen because the child is having difficulty waiting for undivided attention.   An activity menu may help your child during these times.   Take photos of activities which your child has been seen to do independently.   Have a selection of these activity photos for your child to choose from during these times where you need him or her to play without your assistance.   Make sure that the materials for these activities are readily available.   Set a timer of how long you wish for them to engage in the activity.   Praise your child for playing independently.

Waiting is difficult for most people regardless of learning challenges.   Yet it is a critical and necessary life skill.   It is never too early to begin the process of teaching your child to wait.   It will definitely help to decrease frustration and tantrums in the future.   I hope my suggestions are helpful.   If you have any suggestions of your own of how you have taught your child to wait please share your ideas here.   You may help someone else in sharing your experience.