Every parent can get frustrated when their children continually interrupt them. It seems that no matter how many times you tell them to “stop interrupting” or to “wait your turn” they keep tugging at your shirt or saying your name so many times you lose your composure. I am going to share a teaching strategy with you that may seem far too simple. But you will be surprised at the lasting effect it can have.
We expect our children to do many things without actually teaching them how we would like them to do it. One of the skills we need them to know is how to get an adult’s attention safely while the adult is talking to someone else. The right approach might seem like common sense to us. But for children to be successful, they need to be taught how and then have time to practice. You want the experience to be a positive one.
This is the teaching conversation you can have with your child:
Teaching Conversation For Your Child to Get Your Attention Safely
The safe way to get my attention when I am on the phone or talking to someone else is this:
Tap me on the shoulder or the arm.
I will look at you and give you a signal to show you that I hear you and see you need my attention, but I am unable to stop what I am doing to help you just yet. (The signal could be placing your hand on their hand or whatever you decide to use, but be consistent)
Then you will wait by me as I finish what I am saying to the other person.
When I am finished, I will turn to you and give you a big high five and say, “You did it, you waited for mommy/daddy to be done without interrupting! Way to go! Now it’s your turn to talk.”
Let’s practice now so we can see how this will work.
Be sure to know what attention span is developmentally appropriate for your child's age.
A good rule of thumb for the length of a child's attention span is 1-2 minutes for each year of age.
So, a 4-year-old could pay attention for 4-8 minutes. They would then require a break for about the same amount of time to gain another 4-8 minutes of attention.
It can take 400 times in context for a young child to learn a new skill. So, although you practice this strategy and it seems that your child understands what to do during these moments, they may forget and use the old way instead. When this happens — and it will — stop your other conversation, take a deep breath and remain calm while saying, “Oops you forgot what to do to get my attention safely." Then coach them through the process one more time.
If they still melt down and are having a hard time waiting in the moment, you have an opportunity to coach them through being upset. Remain calm, continue to take deep breaths, and say, "It is so hard to wait for a turn to talk to me. You can handle this.” Or say, "You wanted my attention and forgot what to do." Be sure to breathe with them so that they have a visual picture of you being calm.
Once they're calm, you can say, "Let's practice the safe way to get my attention, so you can remember next time." If they're not receptive to the instruction and are still frustrated or crying, you can say “Your body is telling me that you need time to calm down before we can practice.”
Remember that a child's success in using a new skill can also depend upon the amount of stress the child is under. As an adult, if you are short of sleep or haven't had enough coffee, it can be harder for you to do simple things you do regularly. Kids are the same. If they are over tired or hungry and stressed, they will not be able to use their skills as effectively as usual.
Just like an adult, if a child is over tired or hungry and stressed, they won't be able to use their skills effectively.
Learning a new skill takes time. But it will be worth the time it takes when they start using this new skill and get the time to practice. I have successfully taught this to children 2 years and older, but also model it for younger children. Be sure to use the language and hand signals for these younger children, as well. They need the opportunity to see and hear the language and hand signals.
If the words they use when you are coaching them are not kind, remember they are working hard to handle not getting their way. Once the situation is over and they are calm, you can work with them on using different words. So remain calm yourself and encourage them with “I know this is hard, you can do it.” By avoiding reacting to the words they choose in a stressed moment, you get another teaching opportunity.
Inconsistency is something that can get in the way of success. Remember that the brain is pattern-seeking. If you are inconsistent in how you respond when they forget to use a new skill, they will naturally fall back to the old way. Children (and all of us) need to practice new skills until they have had time to get strengthened in the brain. So when your child forgets, breathe and re-teach and try again. Your consistency when responding to your child with this new strategy will create a great teacahable moment that will turn conflict into cooperation.
The ideas in this article are inspired by Dr. Becky Bailey. To learn more about creating teachable moments through everyday expectations, go to www.consciousdiscipline.com