How Sabotage and Minor Withholding Can Help Your Child

How Sabotage and Minor Withholding Can Help Your Child

How can sabotage be a good thing?

When someone hears the term sabotage, the first thing that pops into their head is likely a negative connotation.  After all, sabotage is defined as “to deliberately damage or obstruct”, how can that be a good thing?  However, when used in the proper context, sabotage can be a great tool to develop your child’s speech and language skills!  When we purposefully create a problem or difficult situation (for example, your child cannot open a box full of goodies or operate a toy independently), children are encouraged to learn how to ask an adult for help, request a specific action, or ask for a certain item.  Even as adults, if there is something we are unable to do by ourselves, we often look to others for help.  What better way to have a child practice their language in a functional way? We are not only fostering functional expressive language skills, but also increasing social interaction.

When should I withhold from my child?

The term withholding may also cause some initial concern for parents or caregivers, as it refers to “refusing to give something that is desired”.  However, I always put emphasis on minor when using the term, as it can be another effective strategy and tool to promote language when used appropriately.  If your child is a total communicator, that means they use everything in their wheelhouse to get their point across to you. This may include vocalizations, gestures,sign language, picture board, or an augmentative and alternative communication device (iPad).  As we use minor withholding, we can continue promoting these expressive language skills at any level, whether it is creating longer utterances, combining vocalizations with gestures, or practicing a new sign.  

Gestures are always a great way to augment communication and your child’s intended message, and children learn at an early age how to use this nonverbal language to communicate their thoughts and needs.   However, as they get older, gestures can continue to be encouraged to promote  your child’s speech development through withholding.  For example, children can gesture towards a desired item, but with minor withholding, you are not permitting them to play with it unless they attempt to imitate a model or produce a related sound.  Think about it, if your child simply points to what they want and it is provided to them, why would they ever need to learn how to say it? When we slightly withhold a desired object, children are highly motivated to learn how to ask for that specific item.  This also creates a perfect opportunity to provide a model demonstrating what we want our child to ask for, whether it is a sign, label, or phrase to request.  Similar to sabotage, it is important to find the balance with withholding. We do not  want to tease children by holding objects in view through multiple attempts, it has to be used in moderation at their functional level. 

It can be okay to act confused or deliberately set up situations to get children to use language.  So when your child is pointing at the jar of delicious cookies on the counter, or pushes a box of toys over to you, it can be helpful to pretend like you have no idea what they want!

My favorite materials

Some of my favorite examples and widely used materials for sabotage include bubbles, clear boxes or bags of favorite toys or items, wind-up toys, empty plates or bowls in a play kitchen, other highly motivating objects for your child’s specific interests, or an associated toy missing the main piece (for example, a race track without any cars).  Depending on your child’s stage of language development, these materials can elicit great functional terms such as “open”, “help”, or “more”, and promote vocabulary development for nouns and action words.  As mentioned, another benefit of sabotage is that it can be adapted for any stage of development or ability.  It can be used to practice sign language, approximations (targets close to the intended word), words, and, if they are two years or older, 2-3 word combinations (e.g. “more bubbles”, “open cookie”, “help me”, etc.).  

In my experience, it is best to use sabotage lightheartedly, knowing that your child has the potential to be successful.  I never want a child to become discouraged or become upset and then associate using language with a negative experience!  We also do not  want to turn an activity into drill practice by having them attempt a sound, word, or phrase repeatedly until they get it correct.  The trick is to find the right balance.  If you know your child has a sound or approximation in their inventory, sabotage and minor withholding can be beneficial to get them to continue practicing or adding to skills  they already have.  If a child  has never said a specific word before, do not hold off rewarding them until they say it.  Most likely, this will be  upsetting to a child, not to mention you might potentially be waiting a long time for a completely correct response!  Another crucial detail is to make sure you always reward good efforts.  Sabotage and withholding should not be overused for every situation on a daily basis.  Use it intermittently while not over exerting your child’s frustration tolerance. 

Finding Their ‘Voice’

There are so many ways to help develop your child’s language.  Here are a few that can be used universally for children: 

  • Always provide immediate, positive reinforcement for any and all attempts, including vocalizations or approximations (a production that sounds close to their target word, for example “ap” for “apple”).  You can also model the correct response using slow simple speech and stressing key words without consistently pointing out errors (e.g. “Yes, it is an apple”). 
  • It is also important to follow your child’s lead during play- let them run the show! It is not natural to have your child consistently target sounds/words in ‘drill-like’ activities, and does not always lead to carryover of what they learned.  Instead, try engaging in play and observe what toy or activity motivates them.  

Wait and respond.  Give your child a chance to form their sound or words and then provide a response.  Responses can include imitation of what they say, expanding on their response (e.g. I see a dog), extension (e.g. It’s a big dog), parallel talk (talking about what your child is doing), and recast (responding with more detailed and grammatically correct language). 


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