Here is a common situation in the clinic: A child is engaged in an activity with the therapist, then the therapist begins to discuss something with the parent. The child notices that they are no longer being provided the attention and guidance in an activity, at the time, and calls out, ‘hey, stop talking!’. When the talking continues, the child begins to walk up to the parent and push them away, pull at them or again interrupt with an ‘I told you to stop!’.

This is just one example describing a child who has difficulty waiting. There are plenty of examples, and families, teachers and therapists see these often. Waiting is a skill, and a very tricky one for many children, especially when abstract concepts such as time are presented. In many instances, difficulties with waiting are due to a number of factors, many of which can be supported and worked on. From my experience, there appear to be three main areas to address when working on ‘waiting skills’.

Reducing the ‘feeling of waiting’

There are often certain triggers that cause more difficulty waiting, so adapting and working on these can have a positive outcome. Providing some ‘sensory stimulation’, can support and reduce the ‘feeling of waiting’. As such, it is important to provide activities or ‘things to do’ while waiting. This can include: a bag or ‘toys or activities’ that a child can choose from when having to wait; giving the child a task or responsibility while they have to wait (e.g. can you please find all missing coloured pencils, while I am talking to Mr Smith); providing access to a favoured book, toy or in some instances an electronic device (though this should be limited with rules and timer set on the device).

As time is such an abstract concept, visual supports are always an effective way to reduce the ‘feeling of waiting’. These can be short term waiting visuals, e.g. using a visual timer (Time Timer, kitchen timer) with a coloured area that reduces as time passes, or a sand or oil timer, can give clear visual guides of the passage of time; In a classroom or at home a ‘traffic light system’ or waiting car system in the desk, where an adult can place a red or green light up to show when it is ok to interrupt or approach; longer term waiting visuals can include a calendar or written schedule with an image of something a child is waiting for (e.g. concert) at the end of a time period, so the child can see as each day passes, what they want is getting closer.

In addition to these, providing many children regulation (e.g. movement, going to a playground, sensory play) can support attention and arousal, which in turn can reduce frustration or anxiety around waiting. Regulation activities can also be used to support waiting (e.g. movement activities to reduce the feeling of waiting). For example, in a classroom setting, giving the whole class regular movement opportunities (e.g. 2x animal walks, 20 star jumps, 10 chair pushups) every 30 mins, can provide regulation to lower arousal and potential anxiety around waiting.

Teaching children ‘how to wait’

It is often easiest to tell a child to ‘just wait’ every time they are required to wait for something or someone. However, encourage them to learn ‘waiting skills’ is a far more effective way to encourage children to understanding waiting. Waiting is a social skill, and for lots of kids it is a skill that needs to be taught. Teaching children this skill can often be done through social stories and pictures about e.g. ‘how to wait’, ‘how people will be happy with me if I can wait’ and ‘how waiting is important in helping me get what I want’. Social stories can provide easy to understand and engaging ways to consolidate waiting skills. For example, a social story for the classroom can be about ‘rules for waiting/not interrupting’. This can discuss explicit ways to wait and not interrupt (e.g. raising hand, saying ‘excuse me’).

It is also important for waiting, to mention the ‘benefits’ of waiting and how doing can be rewarded (e.g waiting for 1 whole fall of the oil timer can lead to 1 sticker)).

Many opportunities to practise waiting can be completely incidental, e.g. teachers or parents can create opportunities during the day for the child to wait for something. You can begin teaching ‘waiting skills’ in controlled and isolated situations (e.g. While setting up an activity or a game, and the child gestures or mentions they want to start, you may say, ‘first let’s count to 10, then we can start’. Counting out loud (while setting up) and then starting after 10, reinforces a positive behaviour approach to being able to wait. From here, you can slowly increase the waiting interval (e.g.15 seconds, then 20 seconds, then 30 seconds etc.) This is a very behaviouralist approach to waiting, but can be effective in providing explicit waiting skills, and reinforcing positive behaviour choices.

Using a first and then approach can also support waiting. Here a child is encouraged to participate in an activity, or try something FIRST, THEN receive their desired activity/reward. It can also further provide structure to waiting and also provide further understanding of ‘how to wait’.

Reinforcing ‘waiting skills’

As mentioned in the ‘how to wait’ section, It can also be effective to employ some positive reinforcement when a child has shown the ability to wait for something or someone. Moreover, providing attention to socially appropriate ways of waiting (e.g. talking once two other people have finished). This can also be followed up by providing little attention to a child’s attempt to continuously ‘interrupt’ or seek further attention (e.g hitting, pulling). Here it is important to discuss the appropriate ways (e.g. social stories) to get someones attention, to further consolidate a child’s understanding of ‘how to wait’.

Having a chat with stickers, points or a ‘reward’ system each time a child shows an ability to wait, will reinforce to them a positive approach to this skill. It can also provide a visual guide to show success and positive reinforcement, especially for children challenged by receptive and expressive language.

Combining the approaches

It is important to remember that ALL THREE areas (‘feeling of waiting’, ‘how to wait’ and ‘reinforcing waiting skills’) should be employed to support improved waiting skills. While the above suggestions are not the only way to work on waiting skills, they provide a nice foundation to cover sensory, teaching, and behavioural approaches.

Fell free to comment about any effective sensory, teaching or behavioural ways you have to support waiting skills!


1. Jed Baker (2008), No More Meltdowns, Future Horizons, USA

2. Special Learning Incorporated (2015), Teaching Young Children to Wait, http://www.special-learning.com/blog/article/74

3. Beth Aune, Beth Bert & Peter Gennaro, (2010) Behavior Solutions for the inclusive classroom, Future Horizons, USA


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