Language Delays Part 2 – Responsive Communication

Here are some great tips and teaching techniques for working with riders with language delays! These come from the book “Play to Talk” by  James MacDonald Ph.D. & Pam Stoika Ph.D. Their perspective focuses on the social communication skills side of language development and using responsive communication strategies to engage the child. These posts summarize the basic and most helpful concepts relating to the therapeutic riding instructor. See Part 1 for more background info. If you’re looking for additional tips for language delays, check out the past posts about Speech Disabilities in Therapeutic Riding and Communication Techniques for Low/Nonverbal Riders.

Now to the tips!

Use Responsive Communication

Responsive communication is when the child chooses and controls the activity, while the partner joins and responds and shows them the next steps. It involves:

  • responding to whatever the child is doing at the moment, in a way that makes him want to stay with the adult and in a way that helps him communicate and socialize a little more and a little better each time.”
  • uses natural interactions in a natural setting – such as the home (or riding lessons!), as opposed to the classroom
  • uses what the child already knows (noises, gestures, repeated phrases, etc.)
  • helps the child communicate what they already know
  • uses responsive communication strategies of balancing, matching, sharing control, responding, and playing (detailed below)

Why responsive communication works:

  • accepts the child as they are right now – connects with them where they are in order to have developmental influence on them
  • joining what the child is already doing encourages them to keep practicing and to stay with you for more learning opportunities
  • adding a little more to what the child is already doing makes learning easy and successful
  • it is key to most lasting relationships – you’re not just helping them talk, but have friends!
  • it has been shown by studies (the book claims) to cause greater gains in language by those with language delays (including autism) than using a directive strategy

Start where the child is by entering their world

I love this concept and have blogged about it before regarding Paying Attention. As Play to Talk puts it, “Bridging the gap between their world and yours to become communicating partners and prepare them for a life of conversation and friendship.”


  • live in a world experienced through their physical senses
  • live in a world of sensation, action, and feelings
  • need to physically experience the world before they can reason and think abstractly
  • Side note: how does a child thinks before they know words? I wonder if it’s like some folks (Temple Grandin) who think in pictures.

vs. Adults:

  • live more in their heads than their bodies
  • live mostly in a world of thought and language
  • see the world in ideas and words
  • When we adults only talk to children, we are missing a huge part of their world.

So start where the child is by entering their world:

  • enter the child’s world of sensation and action
  • instead of explaining every thing to them, sit and play
  • once in their world, find a way to interact and give opportunities to practice communicating
  • while in their world, gradually teach him your world’s way, so when they choose to join you there, they can be successful

Balance Conversation (aka Wait!)

  • when you do all the talking, the child cannot learn as much
  • take turns and communicate only as much as the child, in both gestures and speaking
  • you do something, then wait silently for the child to interact, which can feel like it take a long time, but the child needs this time to catch up with your ideas
  • expect them to do something, show it on your face, point or prompt their turn
  • accept any safe behavior as a response (it could be small, such as eye contact, small movements, small sounds), then respond meaningfully yourself
  • don’t: do more, talk more, talk over them, interrupt them, let them leave before staying for a few turns
  • Reminds me of my post The Importance of Waiting: Use a short statement with verbal inflection, wait (count to 5 or 10), then prompt as needed. 

Match Them & Show The Next Step

  • Match the child’s behavior
    • Act and communicate in ways that are possible for the child. Use actions/sounds/gestures/words/language that the child DOES use or CAN try to do. Act like them!
    • If you don’t know what is possible for them, spend a few minutes just observing
    • Children are more likely to cooperate if they feel expectations are possible for them to reach
  • Match the child’s interests
    • Act and communicate in ways that the child cares about, that fits their immediate interest and emotional state
    • join the child in the moment, whatever they are doing or playing
    • talk to them about what they are doing
    • give them a word for their nonverbal message
    • don’t talk about things unrelated to their experience
    • don’t create your own play he cannot join in
  • Show the child the next step
    • so he can take the many next small steps toward more difficulty communication
    • the next word/action/sequence
    • how to talk about what they already know
  • “If you want me to do more, then show me something I can do. If you want me to communicate, then communicate in any of the ways I can do. If you want me to talk about your ideas, then talk about mine first.” (Play to Talk)

Share Control

  • Both you and the child make choices and lead interactions about half the time. They will only learn if they do half of it.
  • The more the child gets to be an active participant and has some control in interactions, the more they communicate (obviously, but still, a lot of people dominate the conversation when speaking to kids)
  • Balance the number and length of turns taken.
  • Balance the topics – it’s not just about getting a turn, but having a say in the topic, having time to lead, having time to share ideas and respond.
  • Limit questions – see this post: About Asking Questions. Questions can turn into quiz show interactions with one word responses and the pretense of right or wrong answers. They suggest limit questions to 20% of what you say.
  • Do make comments, describe what you see, provide words for emotions, make sound effects.
  • If the child is more passive, wait silently and let them initiate. Keep the “therapeutic tension.”


  • Responding lets the child know that they are seen, they are okay, they belong, they are alive.
  • Children learn to communicate because of how we respond to behavior. The child randomly raises their arms and we take it to mean “pick me up” so we consistently do so until the child learns that’s what the motion means. Children will do more of the things you respond to, and less of the things you don’t respond to.
  • Respond immediately, to the little things, to both obvious and subtle behavior.
  • Give them a reason to stay connecting, keep communicating and turn taking.
  • Respond as if their communications were purposeful (even if you don’t know what they mean).
  • Instead of waiting for the child to use words, respond consistently to certain behavior, and they will learn to use that behavior to communicate.
  • Match your responses to the child – use the same or similar actions and words.
  • Show them what to do next – add a behavior or word that is possible for the child.
  • After responding, WAIT for the child to take a turn.
  • Respond to immature behavior by waiting for more mature behavior.
  • Don’t: respond only to words, ignore pre-verbal behavior, wait to respond only to behavior that is not possible for the child, respond to undesirable actions

This concept is preached by many professionals who work with children. Each one puts it slightly differently. (Having a baby entering toddlerhood, I’ve been reading up on this).

  • Janet Lansbury, of RIE education, says, “The secret to connecting is to meet children where they are.  Listen patiently and acknowledge. We can never go wrong or overboard when we acknowledge: “You are so upset we have to leave. Oh, this is terribly upsetting for you! I said we had to go when you really, really wanted to stay longer. You were having so much fun!”” (Janet Lansbury)
  • Dr. Harvey Karp of The Happiest Toddler On The Block says use the Fast Food Rule: Listen first, then respond (repeat their order back to them), and use Toddlerese (respond in kind, using like behavior/noises/words).

That’s it for today. The next post will be on the last technique, play!


Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!

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