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Why Children Don't Talk to You When They're Crying - The Eggs in a Basket Analogy

Updated: Sep 23, 2022

Do any of these situations sound familiar?

Situation 1

Child is working on putting a puzzle piece in a puzzle.

Adult: What animal is that?

Child: [no response]

Adult: What sound does the duck make?

Child: [no response]

Situation 2

Child and therapist or parent are singing Old McDonald with toy animals. Adult takes the cow back from the child. Child cries because he wants to continue holding the cow.

Adult: And on his farm he had a….. what’s that? [holds up next animal]

Child: [No response, continues to cry]

Adult: Horse! With a neigh neigh here and a…

Child: [No response, continues to cry]

Why is it that the child is not responding in these two situations?

Because in those instances, he is not thinking about LANGUAGE.

In Situation 1, when he is playing with the puzzle, he is focusing his energy on his MOTOR SKILLS.

In Situation 2, when he is crying, he is focusing his energy on his EMOTIONS.

Imagine having three baskets with eggs. One basket is the child’s MOTOR SKILLS, one basket is the child’s EMOTIONS, and one is LANGUAGE.

When the child is doing the puzzle, all of his eggs are in his MOTOR SKILLS basket. When the child is crying, all of his eggs are in his EMOTIONS basket. In order to use language, the eggs have to be distributed evenly in EACH basket.

When a child is having a tantrum, of course he’s not using his language…all of his eggs are in his EMOTIONS basket. He is putting all of his energy into his emotions.

Why does this matter?

Have you ever wondered why a child might cry when he falls down, but then can’t tell you what hurts? It’s because all of his eggs are in his EMOTIONS basket and he cannot access his language in that moment.

When a child’s eggs aren’t evenly distributed in his three baskets, he is not going to be in a mental headspace where he can efficiently process language and learn.

So what is our job when a child has all of his eggs in his EMOTIONS basket? To calm him down. Without calming him down, we are not going to be able to effectively engage the child in any activity.

I love to use this Eggs in a Basket analogy in sessions. Often times a child will cry, and we will want to continue whatever we are doing and continue placing demands on the child, OR we feel the NEED to continue because we don’t want to look like we’re just sitting and waiting. But guess what? I tell the parents that our job in that moment is to calm him down, and I explain the eggs in a basket analogy.

What about when a child has all of his eggs in his MOTOR SKILLS basket? This can be tricky. Let’s separate fine and gross motor.

If you’re doing a fine motor activity with a child, you should not put language demands on the child when he’s in a moment where he needs to focus on his motor skills. For instance, if you’re doing a puzzle, ask him the animal name, then give him the puzzle piece, and give him a minute to put the piece in before you ask him what the animal says. You can’t expect him to answer questions while he’s working on getting that piece in. Think about when you’re threading a needle (this is the example I give parents). If you’re threading a needle and you’re really needing to focus on that, and if I come up to have a serious conversation with you, you’re probably going to say “Can you just give me a minute?” It’s even too hard for us adults sometimes to focus on our language and fine motor skills.

Gross motor is a different ball game. This is because many children with attention issues move around a lot. This is why it’s important for us to work on improving their regulation, and when we do that, they will be able to access their language more efficiently. Just keep in mind that if you are choosing to do gross motor activities, you should also only put language demands on the child before and after he takes a turn. For instance, if a child is walking across a balance beam, you shouldn’t expect the child to be able to answer WH-questions for those moments when he is walking across the beam. Save the language demands for before and after.

Like I said, this is one of my FAVORITE analogies. Understanding this is empowers parents and therapists with knowledge and will affect their DAILY LIVES. Especially those of us with toddlers dealing with tantrums on a daily basis!

If you want my visual to use in sessions, click here to get the *FREE* download!

P.S. To learn more... If you're an SLP, click here to apply to the Inside Out Sensory Certificate for SLPs. If you're a parent of an autistic child or child with sensory needs, click here to apply to the Inside Out Sensory Communication Program for Parents.

Jessie Ginsburg, M.S., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist, autism expert, and owner of Pediatric Therapy Playhouse, a multidisciplinary clinic in Los Angeles.

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