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Whatever next?

Have you had one of those days where your toddler seems to resist everything you say and you feel like getting anything done with them is a battle? They finally go off to bed and you collapse in a heap full of guilt.

Everyone has heard about the 'terrible twos' - the age of tantrums, battles and mega melt-downs over what seems like the most trivial of things. More often than not, this kind of toddler behaviour happens when you ask your child to do something like get dressed or say no to something such as watching Peppa Pig (for the 47,598th time!). Of course we all like to get our own way but, as adults we have learned that's just not always possible but for your one year old, they have neither the experience, understanding nor language to accept this.

Why can't my toddler just go with the flow?

Maria Montessori's observations of how young children learn suggested that, at certain times, they are much more predisposed to learn particular concepts and skills; she called these times the 'Sensitive Periods'. For example, the sensitive period for walking peaks around 12-15 months and the sensitive period for movement is present all the way from birth to five! For toddlers, from around the age of 12 months to three years, they are considered to be in the sensitive period for 'Order'. This may seem to you the absolute opposite of how a toddler behaves; where is the sense of order in the chaos they seem to create every day?

The Sensitive Period for Order

Have you noticed how your little one loves to put items into containers, boxes etc ? Maybe they become frustrated when you give them a different cup than usual at breakfast time? Perhaps it's that impromptu trip to the park after nursery that results in a complete tantrum (and there you were, thinking it would be a lovely surprise!). If any of these ring a bell, you can see that so many of the things your toddler resists or becomes frustrated about are linked to them noticing that things are out of place or happening in an unexpected/out of the norm way.

To your little one, this drive to have an ordered environment and routine is what brings them peace and helps them to make sense of their ever expanding world. To them, it is unthinkable that you should go to the park after nursery when every other time you've picked them up you've gone home, had a snack and played a game. Without the verbal language skills to ask why this is happening nor the level of understanding language needed to hear your explanation, it is no wonder that changes such as this often end in a melt-down.

So how do you help your toddler to navigate the day whilst respecting their need for order?

Not surprisingly, it's all about the preparation. Change is an inevitable part of life and brings richness and variety to your child's experience but the crucial thing to bear in mind is that they will not only accept something new but will thrive on it, if they know it is happening and are able to be involved in the process of making choices about it. This applies to all sorts of situations which we might not necessarily see as 'change' - for example, when your child is busy playing with some bricks and you tell them lunch is ready right now, they have to transition from the activity they are engaged in to one they are not currently interested in.

One of the most effective ways to help your little one move from one thing to another is by using images in advance to explain what is going to happen as a means of clear preparation. During my years working in Early Years settings we always used 'Visual Timetables' which are basically a short series of images showing what we are doing now and what will happen after that.

How to make your own Visual Timetable

We created a simple timetable using stock images and taking photos of key times of day and places in a toddler's life such as their breakfast bowl, their cot, the local park and their favourite toys. Print the photos off and stick onto card/cover in clear sticky-backed plastic or laminate them if you are able.

You will also need a roll of self-adhesive Velcro.

Choose a place in the house where you have space to display a short row of photos and add a strip of one side of the Velcro - we chose a low cupboard door in the kitchen which is at the right height for little eyes and hands.

Add small pieces of the other side of the Velcro to each photo and store all photos near the strip.

You can then add a short series of chronologically ordered images depending on the time of day to prepare your child for what's happening "now" and "next"

NB - Don't worry if you don't have the Velcro - you can always just lay out the photos on a table top or similar. As long as your child can see the sequence it will still be helpful to them.

Our favourite ways to use a Visual Timetable ...

  • To encourage your little one to get dressed - use photos showing breakfast, then clothes, then the park. Point to each photo in turn using clear language such as "You've had your breakfast, then we'll get dressed and then we can go to the park". This works a treat if your little one is desperate to go out and do something but absolutely refusing to get dressed!

  • At the end of the day, help your child to pack away the toys before bath time by showing then a photo of their toys and a photo of their bath and explain that they can carry on playing for a few more minutes and then it will be time to put the toys away and go up for a bath. By giving them this visual 'early warning' they will be prepared for what is coming and are less likely to resist putting the toys away.

  • If you have a little TV addict and you're wanting to reduce screen time, rather than saying "no" all day long , use images to show them that once they have had lunch, they can help you to tidy up and then they can watch a programme. In this way, you have reassured them that they will be able to watch but that it will not be straight away. You might want to create a new sequence of photos before they start their programme to show them that they can watch for a while and when it is finished they can choose to either play with blocks or share a book with you.

  • Prepare your little one for their bedtime routine by using the photos to remind them that they first have a bath, then a story, then into bed (adjust to whatever your routine is). This is really great way of reinforcing the routine so that they have no expectations that they will, for example, come back downstairs to play after their bath. As they get older, you can get them to find the bedtime pictures themselves and ask them to show you what happens every day at bedtime.

These are just a few examples of how using images in short sequences can support your toddler as they learn to get to grips not only with changes throughout their day, but also their emotional development as whole. Try to build up a wide collection of images to use to cover as much of their day as possible. Here are a few more ideas ....

  • Places such as nursery, doctor's, grandparents' house, shops, baby group, friends' house, soft play ....

  • Times of day such as mealtimes, school pick-up, nap time, bath, tidy up time, using the potty ...

  • Favourite toys they can play with independently such as blocks, stacking toys, simple puzzles etc

  • Favourite games to play with you such as matching games, obstacle course, water play ...

  • Things they can make such as baking, art & craft activities, play dough

  • Jobs they can help you with such as sorting washing, cleaning windows, peeling veg

  • TV programmes you are happy for them to watch

As they get used to using the images, let them choose some of them for themselves so they feel they are in control of at least some of the things during their day. That way, when there are things you absolutely have to do (like the school run or having lunch) they will have been 'diluted' by self-chosen activities.

Always remember to talk about what's in the images as you use them; you will be building your child's language skills, encouraging them to be able to express their choices and feelings with words eventually.

If you have a go at this, I'd really love to know how you get on - if you have a moment, it would be great to share your photos with us on Instagram or Facebook @smallbrightlearning.

Have Fun! xx

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