Autism behaviour education Life skills special education special needs Teaching

How To Teach Children To Wait

Waiting: Strategies for use at home & school

Waiting can be a challenge for many children. As a teacher and a parent I have had to find ways to teach children to wait for a whole range of things. Throughout the day in the SEN classroom there are natural lulls in planned activity. This may be due to staff breaks, the logistics of managing resources in the classroom, switching attention between children and transition. Teaching a child to wait have many advantages and will be a skill that the child will need to draw on throughout their life. Waiting is a social skill that it is too easy to presume a child will be able to do. I have always taught autistic children and the teaching of waiting was an integral part of our daily routine.

What is waiting?

Teaching children to wait card autism symbol
Home Made Wait Card

Teaching children to wait needs adults to carefully plan why that child is waiting and designing appropriate resources to support them. Identify the times in the day that they may need to pause before moving on. Technically waiting means remaining inactive until an expected event occurs. This isn’t really the case in schools. I have never managed to keep a class or my own children inactive. Their are two usual reasons for a child to be waiting. Transition between activities/tasks and delayed gratification. Both of these have a different purpose but have a commonality in required skills. To wait successfully in either case requires the following areas of awareness:

  • Expectation
  • Trust
  • Time
  • Patience
  • Anticipation
  • Purpose

Teaching children to wait: Developing an expectation of patience

For the following strategies to be successful the expectation within that environment needs to be one of patience and waiting. When behaviours linked to impatience are displayed it is essential that the adult response is planned to enhance the teachable moment. For example if a request is made the adult could shape the interaction by explaining when the item can be had. This is were appropriate boundaries can be put in place. Sometimes a need can and should be met immediately, sometimes we can plan a delay to that need without causing distress. Teaching children to wait requires us to have patience and does require us to have a plan.

Wait box teaching autistic children to wait
Another example of a “wait box”

As an adult demonstrating any skill we can model expectations of patience in our interactions throughout the day. When we make a request of the child we need to be careful not to harangue the child into compliance (a tricky balance when living with procrastinators). Children will pick up on all of our behaviours. Every “Hurry up” and sign of impatience will be teaching them that waiting is bad. We are all human and often in a rush. School timetables are a cause of stress and often not conducive to teaching waiting.

10 Strategies for teaching children to wait

Teaching children to wait.

  1. Explain why we are waiting

    Depending on the child’s receptive language level always explain to the child why a request cannot be carried out immediately. “The chips are still cooking” Lynn’s book includes an excellent social story on waiting

  2. Use concrete representations of time

    Time itself is an abstract concept. When waiting time can seem to drag. When enjoying an activity or in a flow state time passes without notice. A visual timer, countdown, egg timer or app can be useful. These allow a child can monitor the reducing amount to time they will wait.

  3. Model waiting

    Similar to co-regulation, wait with them. Often as adults we are the ones doing the making, sorting, cooking etc. Try to create opportunities to wait as well. i.e if waiting for a bus or train sit with them, don’t use your phone, pace up and down etc. If you have a TA or other adult use them as co-waiters while the other sets out resources etc.

  4. Involve the child with jobs

    When teaching a child to wait don’t be afraid to help them fill that time. A good example of this is at dinner time. The child can lay the cutlery etc. You are filling the time with meaningful activity. By doing this you are also supporting their life skills development.

  5. Cut back on technology

    Instant feedback and on demand games, videos etc do not help with teaching patience. Technology can be your best friend during enforced waiting but use it sparingly. When tempted to give a child an ipad or your phone make them wait for it. 5 minutes etc. If going on a drive with a screen set a landmark to reach before turning them on.

  6. Reduce Anxiety

    Anxiety around the thing the child is expected to wait for can make the wait a stressful time. i.e a wait for the dentist can seem endless. Forward planning can help reduce the waiting time. i.e phone ahead to see if the dentist is running late. Prepare the child with key information or a social story before hand.

  7. Have waiting resources

    I had a complex class that all struggled to wait for lunch while staff prepared it. I introduced the “wait box”. Very simply a small box of motivating resources that kept fingers and minds busy. These are easy and simple to put together. The key is to limit the time these resources are available for to ensure they maintain interest. If a child has unlimited access to toys they soon lose their interest.

  8. Use visuals

    Visuals are essential elements of any classroom. Things like now and next boards can support the understanding that the thing the child is waiting for will happen. Use the templates below to create your own.

  9. Honour promises

    If you say you are going to do something you need to honour it. If a child has waited for something you need to reinforce this success by ensuring they receive it/it happens. Never sanction something a child has completed a wait for. This undermines trust and makes it harder to extend waits in future if needed.

  10. Slow down

    Mindfulness, calm, low arousal environments encourage patience much more than frantic, busy, exciting always on the go ones. We can reduce issues around waiting by slowing down. The army have a saying “Hurry up and wait”. Carefully planned routines where pace is carefully monitored should remove the need for too much waiting.

We would love to hear your ideas for teaching children to wait. Please add these to the comments section!

Teaching waiting infographic

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