Little boy learning time with clock toy of montessori

Tips on Teaching Young Children to Wait


Waiting is a skill every child (and adult!) must develop—but for some children, delaying gratification is harder and can lead to challenging behavior. Directly teaching children how to wait is a great way to help them develop this critical skill and participate more successfully in classroom schedules and routines.

Excerpted and adapted from the book Prevent-Teach-Reinforce for Families, by Glen Dunlap, et al., the steps in today’s post will help you purposefully teach a child how to wait for reinforcement or gratification. (Share these steps with families of young children to help them support their child in developing this skill!)

7 Teaching Steps to Follow

Effectively teaching a child to wait involves systematically planning for teaching opportunities, and then directly instructing the child on how to wait. Adults in the child’s life need to be ready and available to assist. To set the child up for success, your teaching process might look like this:

  1. Discuss with the child that waiting can be difficult, and yet sometimes we need to wait. Use specific situations that relate to the child’s experience—for example, “sometimes we need to wait for our turn with the iPad, and that can be hard.”
  2. Develop a planned visual sequence or countdown for waiting. Use a timer or sand timer to display how much wait time is left.
  3. Directly teach the child about the timer, helping them wait by showing how the timer works. You can say, “it will be your turn when all the sand runs out,” or “it will be your turn when all the red disappears from the timer.”
  4. Practice waiting and using the timer with the child. Begin with a wait time that is achievable for the child.
  5. Set up specific structured opportunities for the child to practice using the timer and waiting.
  6. Be sure to comment and give specific praise when the child is waiting patiently. Give immediate access to the preferred activity when the wait time has ended.
  7. Gradually extend the duration of the wait time once the child has learned how to be successful with waiting.

3 Ways to Practice Waiting

Taking turns with a sibling or peer. Set up an activity that requires turn taking (e.g., a simple board game). The game should be one that the child is interested in. A visual turn-taking schedule could be created with the child’s picture, their sibling or peer’s picture, and a moveable arrow. Initially the adult can move the arrow so that it points to the child’s picture when it is the child’s turn, and then move the arrow to the sibling or peer’s picture when it is their turn. Over time, the child can learn to move the arrow to keep track of whose turn it is.

Creating a collaborative art project. Art projects are a great time to practice waiting, particularly if the art activity requires that children take turns with items required to complete the project (e.g., glue, scissors). Again, the project should be something the child is interested in doing. Have a timer that indicates how long each person can use the glue, scissors, or other item before it is someone else’s turn to use it. The timer can be reset each time a new person is using the item(s). Over time, the child can learn to use the timer as a solution when they want something, and use the timer independently to wait for a turn with an item.

Waiting for an adult’s attention. If a child demonstrates challenging behavior when an adult is not paying attention to them (for example, if a family member is talking on the phone or talking to a sibling), teach the child to use a timer to wait for attention. For example, the child can be taught to watch a timer to know when they will get the desired attention. Once the child understands the use of the timer, they can be taught to set the timer for a predetermined amount of time, and the amount of wait time can be gradually increased from a few seconds to multiple minutes with practice. When the timer goes off after the predetermined amount of time, ensure that the child receives attention immediately for waiting.

5 Tips for Kids with Support Needs

  • When a child has cognitive delays or has difficulty learning new skills, initial wait times may be very short, and more encouragement and praise may be necessary. Children should be set up to be successful.
  • Consider setting up opportunities to practice skills that are more likely to be successful with a clear end to the wait time, such as timers and counting down remaining wait time.
  • Be sure to use a countdown method that will fit the child’s learning needs when a child has a vision or hearing impairment, processing delays, or other developmental delays.
  • Wait times need to be structured so the child can see a clear beginning and end to the delay.
  • Extra reinforcement may be needed for a particular child when teaching waiting that is specific to what the child really likes.

The strategies in today’s post are part of the “Teach” component of Prevent-Teach-Reinforce for Families, a highly effective intervention model that helps families prevent behavior problems in children ages 2–10, teach proactive communication and social skills, and reinforce positive behavior. To learn more about this widely used model, see the Prevent-Teach-Reinforce books and online learning modules!