Hello Visuals, Goodbye Toddler Tantrums!

A scrap of paper and pen stopped my toddler's daily tantrums

This winter, my son really loved going outside, but it inevitably resulted in a terrible toddler tantrum. We live in New Hampshire, so from January to March our yard was covered in snow. 

There’s never a moment where I’m sipping hot coffee, looking out the window at a cold snowy day and saying “man, I need to go out there.” But almost every day I found myself agreeing to head outside into the slush.

Here’s where the big ol’ toddler tantrum hits...

My son’s a little strong-willed and he KNOWS that he needs boots to go outside in the snow. What he doesn’t know is that he also has to wear snow-pants if we’re going to be outside for more than a few minutes.

Can you guess where this is going? Picture me holding up snow-pants, my son trying to put on his boots by himself, and tears everywhere. 

Did I mention we were doing this daily?

This pattern repeated for more days than I want to admit until finally I asked myself… 

"How would I solve this toddler tantrum problem at work?"

As soon as I asked that question I knew exactly how to solve this daily toddler tantrum: a visual schedule.

I grabbed the meal-planning notepad my well-meaning sister-in-law gifted me five years ago and pulled off a page for scrap paper. I drew five pictures: socks, snow pants, boots, mittens, jacket and hat. I wrote the word “OUTSIDE” at the bottom (yes he couldn’t read it, but it still worked!)

The next time we got ready to go outside I asked, “what’s the first thing we have to do? Let’s look at our list!” Together we looked at the list and we got ready in the right order with far less whining and crying than ever before.

I want that same result for you! I want you to solve the solvable toddler tantrums in your life. The ones that are simply a matter of miscommunication.

Why we're here:

In this blog post, I’m explaining how to add visual supports to your everyday life so you and your child can communicate more clearly and stop communication-related toddler tantrums before they even start.

Table of Contents

What types of visuals could I use?

First/Then Schedules

I remember a few summers ago, one of my non-speaking students was extremely confused and thrown off by the classroom activities for the day. We were going outside for water play and it took practically the entire school day to convince her to come outside.

Checking on her periodically throughout the day,  I saw little bits of progress (bathing suit on, closer to the outside door, etc.). 

Towards the end of the day, I saw her outside laughing and giggling while the water ran over her hands. I whipped out my iPad and took a quick video (with parent permission, of course).

The next day she began wailing when we again changed the schedule.  We explained (with pictures and the video I had taken), first you go outside, then you get to have so much fun in the sprinkler.

It worked.

She was able to understand that first she had to do the annoying task, but then she’d be ready to splash and play.

First you do something boring, then you do something fun!

I’m hoping this story illustrated the function of first-then schedules. They’re meant to boost understanding of what’s happening now and what will happen next.

Here’s how a First-Then visual looks when I make it in a google doc. I start with a 2×2 table and I insert text or images to explain what’s happening first and second.

Many toddler tantrums have been prevented by moms saying, “that’s a great idea! Let’s put it on the whiteboard. First we’re going to finish what we’re doing and THEN we’re going to _______.”

First-Then schedules can be used alongside larger visual schedules to help a student focus on the next two steps in their day.

Visual Schedules

A visual schedule is like a first-then board with more events. Each event gets its own little space and can be marked off one by one.

A visual schedule can…

  • Help your child to complete a multi-step task with greater independence, for example using the restroom
  • Inform your child about their schedule for the hour, morning, or day.
  • Help to create a consistent routine for both your child and you.
  • Show a child which days they see which caregivers

There are many ways to make a visual schedule, but here are a few of the most common:

  • The classic: Make a rectangular base for your schedule out of posterboard and put a strip of velcro on it. Put an envelope at the bottom (laminated is best). Have a square icon for each of your child’s daily activities laminated with a velcro dot on the back. You can set up your child’s schedule each morning and they can move their icons into the all done envelope as time moves along.
  • Foldable: use cardstock and a marker for this one. First fold the paper in half hot-dog style (along the middle of the long side). On the right side, write/draw out your child’s typical schedule. On the left side, cut a slit to create a little door for each step. Use small bits of velcro or create a tabbed system to hold the door shut once each step is complete.
    (add picture)
  • Horizontal Sequence: I typically see this above sinks as a reminder for how to wash your hands. From left to right each step is laid out so that a child can see the steps of a daily living task.
  • Technology: We’ll talk about some different apps later on, but I’m a huge fan of using your cell phone or iPad to build a visual schedule on the go. You can use different photographs to show each step of a schedule and swipe through them as the schedule progresses.

Stories

I never thought I’d use social stories with my neurotypical son, but I do it all the time. I truly believe they help us to decrease our toddler tantrums significantly. Here’s why:

  • You can use a story to help your child mentally prepare for what an event will look like
  • New events can be alarming and cause anxiety for many kids, so it can be good to know what to expect
  • When we’ve talked through the event before it happens, we’ve previewed a lot of the vocabulary using pictures. When he then gets to interact with those things in real life he gets a 2nd exposure to the word in a different context, which is a great setup for learning new vocabulary.

During my pregnancy, while reading The Whole Brain Child  (WBC) in preparation for raising my son, I connected my love for social stories with their recommendation to tell a story about an emotionally-charged event after the fact. 

The WBC authors, Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson, recommend that you practice remembering with your child and you can use a story to do this. This will help your child to integrate their emotions and memories, thus improving their mental flexibility in the future (or something – this isn’t my area of expertise, but I love the way they explain it in the book).

Visual Timers

I’ve spent a lot of time being a fly on the wall in different preschool classrooms. I’ve literally seen the teaching style of at least 20 different preschool teachers and here’s a fun fact. The teachers with the most regulated, regimented, clockwork-like classes have some way to represent TIME in their classrooms.

In one of my favorite classrooms, the kids would be participating in free play and the teacher would have five season-themed pictures on the wall. She’d say something like, “you have five leaves left of free time!” after a few minutes she’d go and remove a leaf “you have four leaves left of free time!” until finally she’d get to the last leaf and say “the last leaf is coming off, let’s sing our clean up song!”

Between the routine and the time-visual, we rarely had kids get upset about that transition. Compare that to me remembering I have to go to Target and telling my son, “we’re shutting off Blippi and putting on sneakers!” Guess who had a toddler tantrum on her hands with that one?

My favorite visual timers are analog-like clocks that have a moving visual that shows time elapsing. There are several free apps on the app store and google play that will help you to create a visual timer for your child.

You don’t have to always have a timer going, but here are some of the times I find visual timers really useful to stop those toddler tantrums in their tracks:

  • When we’re about to leave somewhere fun (“I’m setting a timer for two minutes and then we’re going to start packing up”)
  • When we’re doing something we hate (“let’s set the timer for three minutes and cut your toenails. When the timer goes off I’ll be all done!”)
  • Alone time (when your child really wants to be in your lap, but you need some space)
  • Sleep (I’m going to set a timer for 20 minutes of rest, if you’re still awake in 20 minutes I’ll come get you!)

Common Reference

This last type of visual support is anything that you and your child can view together (ex., a book, photograph, or the environment around you).

Communication commonly breaks down when the listener doesn’t understand the speaker. When that communication breaks down and the speaker is a toddler, you have a recipe for a pretty big tantrum. If your child is hard to understand, it is always useful to ask them to “show” you what they’re talking about. If they’re able to answer that question, then you may be able to use context clues to figure out what they’re saying.

Even though we’ve been talking a lot about using visuals to help your child understand, I like to use common references to expand what they say. Here’s how: I take tons of pictures every day and often chat with my son about them towards the end of the day. That way we can both have a visual to remind us about what we’re talking about and the context to fill in the blanks if there’s a communication breakdown.

Do the types of Pictures Matter?

The short answer to this question is yes. There are definitely some images that are harder to understand than other images. We call it “iconicity,” which means that some images are more similar to the item they represent than other images.

Let’s see if you can guess what these pictures represent:

  1. A picture of orange juice 
  2. A red octagon
  3. A picture of a headless man with his hands moving down and out
  4. A cartoon depicting a man running
  5. A yellow triangle

Answers: 1. Orange juice, 2. Stop, 3. All done 4. Running 5. caution

If you guessed 2 and 5 right, you’re able to comprehend symbols that are harder to understand than still photos of real images

Here’s my list of image types from easier to harder:

  • Videos of actions
  • Photographs
  • Realistic drawings
  • Cartoon-like drawings
  • Drawings with words

Use Technology to Make Visuals

I’m obsessed with using technology to make my life easier. It’s totally a Kayla-ism. I seriously can’t help but think, “there must be an app for that.” if I’m doing a repetitive, boring task. Visuals definitely fall into this category for me.

Here are a few of the awesome apps I’ve found that I ADORE:

Choiceworks ($14.99) – Apple Products Only

  • Create visual schedules
  • Visual timers
  • Social stories

Story Creator (Free) – Apple Products Only

  • Use pictures from your ipad to create stories
  • You can record your voice reading the story out loud
  • Your child can draw on the pages

Sticky (free)

  • You could create practically any kind of visual with this open-ended app. I’ve made first/then, stories, visuals, pretty much everything using this app.

Slides – Google Slides, Keynote, Powerpoint

  • Add images to each slide to create a swipeable visual schedule
  • Export as a PDF to make it even easier to swipe without accidentally rearranging a slide
  • Create personalized stories

Photo App on your phone

  • Use folders on your phone to put pictures of your child’s daily routine into an organized slide-deck that they can swipe through on the go
  • Take videos of your child doing fun and boring activities, so you can show them their first ___, then ____ schedule.

Summary

I hope that this walk-through of visual supports was valuable to you! Let’s recap really quickly: we talked all about how visuals can increase communication, decrease frustration, and ULTIMATELY decrease toddler tantrums caused by communication breakdowns.

What’s Next?

What are you going to do now? I think you should…

  • Download some of the apps I recommended above and give them a try
  • Practice making a story by following along with my video 

Do you want to get a free PDF with some of my favorite visual-support printables? Sign up for my email list to get access to my visuals along with other items in my Freebie Vault.

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