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Teaching Language Skills During Quarantine

Asking for the things we want is an important skill. As adults, we can often get things for ourselves, but imagine if we didn’t know how to request. Ordering food in a restaurant or finding an item at a store would be a stressful and frustrating experience.


Throughout the day children want many things that they can’t get for themselves. They might be hungry, thirsty, bored, wanting a toy that is out of reach, or wanting attention from a family member. Sometimes children use words to ask for the things they want in the moment. Other times, children might use different behaviors to get their needs met. A child might cry and reach for mom, they might grab a toy from their brother’s hand or hit their brother who is holding a toy they want. Although these behaviors aren’t ideal, it’s important to recognize that they are forms of communication. If we want those behaviors to go away, we need to replace them with language.


Requesting, sometimes called “manding” in ABA lingo, is a very important skill. It is typically the first type of communication that young children learn to use. Babies’ first words are often “baba” (want their bottle), “mama” (want their mom) or “up” (want to be held). When teaching a child to ask for the things they want, try to make it as easy as possible for them.

Tell them the correct word to say right away. Use the minimum number of words necessary. It’s tempting to teach children to speak in sentences like “I want cookies.” However, saying three words is harder than saying one word. If asking for something is difficult, a child is less likely to do it. Teach them to ask for all of the items they like by name. It’s more useful for a child to be able to ask for three different items such as “cookie” “iPad” and “tickle” rather than for them to use three words “I want cookie” to ask for one item.

If your child already speaks in phrases or sentences, teach them to ask for what they want using descriptive words. Teach them to say the name and the color or the name and the size. For example, “blue block” or “big car”. In this case, it’s more useful for a child to be able to describe the thing they want rather than to use a phrase like “I want ___.”


The behavior a child currently uses to get what they want is the “easiest” way for them. If they typically take your hand and lead you to the kitchen and point to the cookie jar then that is easier for them than saying “cookie.” Learning to use words is a new skill and will be difficult at first. We want to teach the easiest response needed, we want to teach quickly to avoid long wait times, and we want to teach consistently. If we sometimes require a child to use words and other times give them what they want when they are crying, progress will be slower.

When teaching a child to ask for what they want, help them right away by telling them the correct word then wait a few seconds for them to say the word. If they do say the word, give them the item right away. If they don’t say the word, try again. Show them the item, tell them the word, wait a few seconds. Repeat this process up to 3 times then reward them for trying by giving them the item anyway.

Here is an example of teaching a child to ask for a cookie

Child: reaches for cookie and whines

Parent: holds the cookie out of the child’s reach and says “cookie!”

Child: reaches for cookie and whines

Parent: continues to hold the cookie out of the child’s reach and says “cookie!”

Child: says “coo”

Parent: gives the child the cookie right away and says “cookie!”

Although the child didn’t say the word correctly, it’s best to reward their effort to talk. Later, once they are trying to use words instead of whining, we can focus on teaching them to say the words correctly.


The more practice we get with any new skill, the faster we learn. This is true for children learning to ask for things they want. Teach your child to request anytime they want something throughout the day. Also schedule 5, 10, or 15 minutes to practice requesting each day. Gather some things your child likes, keep them in a box or keep them out of your child’s reach, give your child a little bit of an item to get them interested then, when they want more, teach them to say the name of the item. Here are some examples of ways you can practice requesting with your child.


If a child has one chance to ask for a cookie during the day, it will likely take many days to teach them to ask for that item. We can make more opportunities by giving smaller amounts of an item at one time. If using a cookie or other snack, break it into smaller pieces. Put the cookie pieces in a bowl and keep the bowl out of the child’s reach. Teach your child to ask before they get each piece.


If your child likes to watch videos on the iPad, teach them to ask for “play” to play the video. Sit next to your child and watch with them. Every minute or so, press pause on the video, cover the button with your hand, and teach them to say “play” then press play on the video.


Sit with your child, give him a small amount of playdoh from the tub. If he reaches for more, teach him to say “playdoh.” If he doesn’t seem interested right away, show him other ways that playdoh can be fun. Roll some playdoh into a ball and squish it against your child’s hand or arm. Roll playdoh into a snake and crawl it up your child’s arm to tickle their neck. Anytime they reach for the playdoh, teach them to say the word.


Make requesting easy by teaching one word at a time.

Teach your child to ask by saying the name of the item.

Reward them for trying.

Create more opportunities to practice and plan time to practice each day.


Sara Davis is a Clinical Supervisor at The Language and Behavior Center. In addition to being a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), she holds a Master's degree in Applied Behavior Analysis. She has worked with children in their homes, at school and in clinic settings. She has experience teaching self-help skills, play skills, and early language skills. Sara believes that requesting and communicating with family, teachers, and friends are important as these skills enable children to form relationships with others and to advocate for themselves.

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