Teaching kids to take turns is good for their brains

Knowing when to speak up and when to listen is a social skill that once learnt turns out to be linked to higher intelligence. Nuzhat Sultana explains.

Two girls arguing.
Taking turns can be challenging for children.

The holidays are a time to get together, to spend time with friends and family, to talk, a time when we can get carried away and forget to wait to take our turn when talking.

Turn-taking in conversational exchanges is part of the back-and-forth interactions between a speaker and a listener, in a way that encourages dialogue.

It’s important. It can also be complicated. Doing it well means taking your turn, not taking too many turns, and listening when it’s someone else’s turn to speak. For the listener it means staying on-topic, making comments, and asking questions in response to what the other speaker is saying.

It’s a social skill that will carry us through life, but it takes some mastering and practice. Most of us break the rules from time to time. By, for instance, interrupting – forcefully inserting ourselves as the speaker before the speaker has finished what they were going to say.

Overlapping is another breach, when a listener interrupts the speaker, but the speaker doesn’t stop talking, which results in two speakers speaking over each other at the same time.

Many broadcasters are regularly taken to task by listeners for both interrupting and overlapping, especially when they’re interviewing politicians. The broadcasters would claim in their defence that their interviewee isn’t playing by the turn-taking rules either, that they’re hogging their turn or not answering the question they’d been asked.

To be patient waiting for your conversational turns is challenging for adults, but more so for children. However, teaching them to do so is doing them a good turn. It will help children develop the crucial skill of communication.

Research has shown that learning the skill of turn-taking in the first three years of life has been linked to higher intelligence levels later in academia. It has also been linked to increased emotional regulation, attachment, and emotional communication, and to cortical growth in language and social processing regions of the brain.

According to the latest research the more children participate in turn-taking during a conversation without interruption with their caregivers, the more active their brain is, in responding to language production and processing.

Turn-taking can teach children many things, such as hearing new words that they may use on their own when it’s time to take their turn. They learn to pay attention to what someone else is saying, how to initiate an interaction, how and when to take a turn. They learn how to clarify or repeat what they were trying to say if it was not understood, how to ask questions, how to use previous knowledge, experience, and problem-solving skills to express their point of view.

This is good for children’s social skills, and also their brain. According to research, turn-taking is strongly linked with the strength of white matter connections between two key language regions (Broca’s and Wernicke’s) in the brain.

Conversational turns are linked to activation in Broca's area of the brain, a well-known language centre. Furthermore, conversational turn-taking is linked to the increased surface area of the left Perisylvian cortex, an area of the brain associated with language comprehension and reading skills.

How do you teach children to take their turn, to not show impatience when waiting for their turn? Developing a conversational turn-taking skill is more difficult for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who typically have difficulty controlling their impulses and may struggle with conversational turn-taking.

Encourage children to take their turn by getting face-to-face with them. You don’t need to say anything.

Nuzhat Sultana University of Auckland

Parents, caregivers, and siblings are in a good position to encourage the child to be an alert participant during conversational turn-taking.

Pause for one or/and two seconds after a child talks and look directly at them, indicating it’s their turn to say something. Around five seconds should be long enough. If you’re still waiting, the child can be encouraged to take their turn to speak with a touch, a question, or a comment.

Encourage children to take their turn by getting face-to-face with them. You don’t need to say anything. Just pay close attention to what the child is interested in, pay attention to eye gaze, gestures, facial expressions, and sounds, which are all clues to when they’ll be ready to take their turn.

Be patient, wait to give the child a chance to send you a message. Remember they don’t need to use words – they might just give you a quick look or make a gesture. Pay close attention or you might miss it. Your child may send you a message with words or other sounds. Treat any sound, look, or gesture as your child’s first “turn” in the interaction.

It’s also important that parents, caregivers etc teaching a child to take their turn, don’t take too many turns themselves. One turn to a child's turn is best, two is okay, but three or more turns to a child’s one turn will lose the child’s interest.

Many adults, of course, could do with remembering this when engaging in conversation with other adults. But taking your turn and inviting and allowing others to take theirs is likely to make for a happier conversation.

Dr Nuzhat Sultana is a lecturer in Speech Science at the School of Psychology in the Faculty of Science at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.

This article was first published by Newsroom.

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