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Observe. Wait. Listen.

Professionals who work with young children are often complimented by parents as being “patient” in their work. As the saying goes, patience is a virtue, but it is also a necessary skill for interacting and communicating with young children. One of the best ways to support and encourage your child to communicate, is to simply wait.

I know what you’re thinking, waiting is hard! And having patience when interacting with young children is hard! It may seem easier to take the lead and initiate or continue interactions (and like you’re helping your child if they’re having a hard time initiating or responding), but the truth is, children who do not have the opportunity to initiate exchanges actually receive less language exposure and input from their communication partners. When you observe, wait and listen to your child’s messages, you let them lead the interaction! When you let your child lead and show interest in what they’ve said, they will want to share and communicate with you even more!

Talk Time Speech Language Therapy | Color picture of mom and child high fiving and playing connect four with dad | Read blog or contact for more information on the Hanen Centre strategy - OWL, Observe, Wait, Listen

The Hanen Centre introduced the strategy of OWL (Observe, Wait, and Listen) for parents and caregivers to use when interacting with their children. This strategy supports language development by encouraging your child to initiate an interaction on their own. Initiation is a critical component of participation when having a conversation because children are much more likely to take another turn and stay in the conversation when they have started the interaction. The OWL strategy is a highly regarded strategy in conversational skill-building, play narration, and verbal expression.

Implementing OWL


Making the time to observe your child during a communication attempt will help you better understand what they are trying to say. Remember to pay attention to their body language, facial expressions, and behavior. Initiations don't only mean verbal interactions; look for your child’s communication attempts in their gestures and sounds too. When you observe your child carefully, you will discover what your child is interested in.


While it’s important to do all three, waiting may be the most important. This gives your child time to initiate an interaction, as well as show interest in something surrounding them. Important steps to waiting include sitting quietly, sitting face to face with the child, and making eye contact. This will show that you are paying attention and engaged in what they have to say and the interaction. Waiting this way also sends a message to your child that you are ready for them to take the lead. We understand that waiting is hard! It can be helpful to internally count to 5 or 10 to give your child time to initiate.. Some children may need a longer wait time, and some children may need a shorter wait time; every child is different! Here are some ways you can create opportunities for your child to take the lead:

  • Help your child make a comment or ask a question

    • Wait out a communication breakdown

    • Change a familiar activity and wait

    • Hide items in surprising places and wait

  • Help your child make a request

    • Offer a choice between items or activities and wait

    • Choose an activity that requires assistance and wait

    • Pause a familiar activity or routine and wait

    • Place a desired item out of reach and wait


Listening refers to paying close attention to all of your child’s words and sounds so that you are prepared and ready to appropriately respond to your child’s words, actions, sounds, etc. By listening, you are letting your child know that you are present and interested in what they are doing. Now what happens if you’re actively listening to your child and you can’t understand them? This may happen and it’s ok! You can use context clues to help you figure out the message, or try imitating their attempt to see if your child responds by trying to clarify their intent. Even if this doesn’t work right away, you are showing your child that you’re trying your best to understand their message.

Talk Time Speech Language Therapy | Color picture of parents and child building with blocks | Read blog or contact for more information on the Hanen Centre strategy - OWL, Observe, Wait, Listen

Here is an example of how you can use the OWL strategy to help engage your child in play:

O – Observe (your child’s interest)

W – Wait (for his/her response)

L – Listen (for his/her communication)

Example: Puzzle Play


– Child fixes alphabet puzzles in order

– When he/she is done, he/she pours out the letters and starts fixing it again

Wait: (for child’s response)

– As child puts the letter “a” on the puzzle, you hold out letter “b” for him/her

– He/she looks at you, then takes the letter

– Continue the interaction with other letters

– As the interaction gets more consistent, only present the letter after he/she looks at you

Listen: (to verbal and non-verbal communication)

– He/she communicates interest by accepting the letters from you

– Follow his/her lead to stop when he/she starts keeping the puzzle or runs off to another toy

We understand that it’s challenging to provide wait time in your day to day life. There is a lot going on and we’re all trying to cram in as much as we can. However, the OWL strategy helps promote a child’s ability to initiate and use language throughout their day. By giving an extra 5-10 seconds of wait time, children with expressive language and language processing difficulties are given the time they need to better understand their environment, formulate their thoughts, and take the lead when interacting with others. Try implementing this strategy for a small portion of your day, each day, then build up from there!

Do you have concerns about your child’s speech or language development? We can help! Our therapists can complete a comprehensive assessment and work with you to create an individualized treatment plan to help meet your goals. Contact us for more information!

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