Serve and Return: The Early Childhood Development Strategy You Need to Know

Serve and Return: The Early Childhood Development Strategy You Need to Know

Have you ever watched a professional tennis match? One player serves the ball and the other returns it, with great focus and force. Back and forth: Serve. Return. Serve. Return. The volley continues as each player waits to respond to what the other is going to send their way.

What does this have to do with Listening and Spoken Language (LSL)? More than you might think!  Sometimes we think of learning to talk as something that comes “later” when a baby starts uttering their first words; however, babies are born with a brain ready to learn spoken language, recognize speech and understand and use words to talk. So, serve and return begins in the first minutes after the child is born. If there is a baby in your world, you are invited to interact and play your own game of serve and return every single day. Those early experiences matter quite a bit!

What does it mean to Serve and Return?

Think of a “serve” as any time your baby attempts to communicate with you.

This could be a smile, a look, a movement such as kicking their legs or a sound your baby does to gain your attention or solicit your interaction. These bids for attention are examples of a baby serving something your way in hopes of a response.

A “return” can be any simple response to your baby’s communication attempt.

You can acknowledge a child’s effort to communicate and reciprocate with a smile or a laugh but a comment is even better! (“Well aren’t you smiley this morning?”) The communication is now starting to move back and forth between you. This can work the other way as well. A parent might serve and a child would return.

While these sweet interactions are a joy unto themselves, they’re doing much more than building relationships. Every time you serve and return with a child, you’re deepening connections in that child’s brain.  

How do these brain connections happen?

The everyday interactions a child has in the first three years of life shape the architecture of their brain, growing the connections needed for important life-long skills — like having conversations with friends, reading books, creating art, thinking about and solving problems and doing well in school.

Every second 700 new brain connections can be formed in response to a baby’s experiences out in the world. The quality of a baby’s relationships have a major influence on which brain connections take place and the strength of those connections. When you have a positive interaction with your baby, like imitating the sounds they are making to encourage them to make more, you are helping to shape their brain for a lifetime of learning.

For children with hearing loss, Serve and Return is particularly important. All babies need to hear the meaningful speech and language surrounding them so their brain can form the connections it needs to later learn to listen, talk and read.

Hearing loss can limit access to sound that little brains need to grow and make those connections. That’s why it’s urgent to follow up on a failed newborn hearing screening and get hearing devices to begin intervention as early as possible for a baby. Children with hearing loss need the opportunity to practice serve and return, and it’s important that the adults in the child’s life continue to engage in this strategy.

Here are a few simple tips to make sure you’re making the most of Serve and Return with your baby:


Make sure your baby can hear you.

Find out the status of your baby’s hearing. 97% of babies are given a newborn hearing screening before leaving the hospital, so check on your baby’s status. If there was a recommendation for follow-up, don’t lose any time before further testing.

When babies with hearing loss are diagnosed early and fit with the right hearing devices for their hearing loss, most have the same opportunity to interact through serve and return activities and grow their brain for listening and talking. The earlier your child is identified, amplified and receiving intervention services, the more opportunities your baby will have.


Seek a parent-professional partnership.

As a parent, you are your child’s first and most important teacher — which can be a little daunting in the early weeks, months and years of a child’s life. All parents live on a learning curve. Fortunately, there are Listening and Spoken Language professionals to help you. They can not only help you with Serve and Return strategies, but teach you when to use them, and which ones are specific to the needs of your child.


Make sure to keep the volley going!

Listening and Spoken Language strategies provide support for you and your child to be successful serving and returning. They are proven techniques to keep the serve and return going. The more these strategies are used, the better the LSL outcomes.

The Serve and Return interaction is a major ingredient in a child's brain developmental process. Use these strategies to help build your baby’s brain for a lifetime of learning!

Blog post originally appeared on the Hearing First blog, Serve and Return.

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