Using visuals to reduce power struggles and teach key skills and routines

So according to the CDC defiant behaviour (2 year) and ALLLLL the emotions (3 year) are developmental milestones. As in you WANT to see these in your child. Your power struggling, negotiating, hairpin trigger toddler is totally and entirely typical 😛

Buuuuuut as parents we can pull out a few tricks to survive. Children desire to be informed. They want to know what to expect and what is coming next. When they feel prepared they are way more likely to go with the flow. However, these little brains only have so much working memory, the cognitive horsepower we use to hold steps in our brain while we carry out a task. For two-year olds it is often only 2-step instructions they can follow (“pick up your jacket AND put it on”), where as some 3-years may be getting the hang of 3-step instructions (“pick up your jacket, put it on and then zip it up.”). Kids hang around this 3-step instruction threshold for a few years. So you will likely find that if you throw lengthy verbal instructions as your older kids they walk down the hall and seemingly have forgotten ALL of it.

One way to help bridge the cognitive gap and keep your daily routines moving and not derailed with a tantrum is to give your kids a visual tool to follow. In the pre- and early verbal years pairing oral and written instructions with a visual will help kids learn the process. They won’t have to reply on remembering what you SAID or their ability to READ, they can simply look at their tool and see what picture comes next that they have associated with the next step in the routine.

We have visual routine template that you can cut and paste to create your own visual tools to keep your kid on track. Our visual routines can help teach children how to follow their bedtime or morning routine. Or creating teaching tools for key life skills like toileting, doing the laundry or washing the dishes. With 5 template choices and 81 visuals to choose from you can can cut and paste to make a set schedule, or create a moveable routine card that can be re-arranged to help students learn flexibility in their process. There are also several sample routine cards in the download that you can simply print and use. For more information check out the preview here!

But how do we use visuals to teach kids?

Our visual routine download includes all the background information on how and why visuals work to teach kids and help them gain independence in their daily routines, and how exactly to use them with your kids. But let’s dig in here!

Visuals are just for a time, not forever

First the goal is that you won’t use the visuals forever. They are a tool to help your child learn and integrate the routine. With Anderson, we used the bedtime routine card for about 5 weeks and the morning routine for about 6 before he started to know the steps and that they were not up for negotiation. At the end of the day not needing them anymore is how you know they’re working. That being said I bring them out again when Anderson requests them (he finds them super fun) or when a routine gets derailed (like over the holidays or after a trip) to get it back on track.

Make them fun

Okay, so we won’t use them forever but how do we START? You start by hyping up the routine cards. If you can create your visuals with your child. Give them a say on how their routine goes (kids always buy in more when it is self-created) and have them help with cutting or gluing. This also introduces them to the child before they are needed, so that when the routine needs to occur they are already aware of the cards and prepared to use them. Act excited about the cards and talk up how cool they are. Enthusiasm is contagious.

Also up the engagement. Make it a game by having them guess and then complete what step comes next without looking at the card first. If you have laminated your routine card then you can check off each step with a dry erase marker. Or you could roll little balls of play dough and put it beside each item on the list and have your child squish it flat when it is completed.

Repetition and consistency are key

So this is where you feel like a broken record for awhile. It honestly feels a little bit silly. Before you start the routine go over the entire visual routine card start to finish and talk about what happens at each step. If your child knows it a bit already, pause and let them tell you what the step is after you point. Then as you go through the routine refer back to the steps you have completed (‘we have brushed our teeth, we have gone to the bathroom, now we are….”) and also look ahead to what is coming (“we are reading stories, and next we will be….”). Do this every. single. time. you move steps. And approach it this way for awwwwwhile. For Anderson we did it this way for about 2 weeks until he really got it.

Next, be consistent. Kids thrive on predicability. Every time the routine occurs use the routine cards. Like every time. Not only that but stick to it. There will be room to be flexible later (we will get to that). But when you are trying to establish a routine you want the goalposts to be steadfast. Once they are intact then you can start to be flexible with your routines and have confidence you can come back to baseline when you need to. So if your child tries to power struggle over a step or negotiate for “just twwwwwo more books” even though your mama heart wants to give in.. don’t (yet). If you are getting push back remain calm, cool and collected and refer back to the visual routine card (“I see you are frustrated we have to brush our teeth. It’s okay to be frustrated but now it is time to brush our teeth (point to step) so that we can get to reading stories (point to step)”) and highlight the elements of the routine they enjoy so they begin to realize that they have to do X Y Z before they get to the fun stuff. Soon your child will begin to learn that everything on the list is there for a reason, and that it needs to be completed, and the pushback will diminish.

Get flexible

You did it, your routine is established. Your kid will start to show you that they no longer need the card. I still keep them around (on the bedside table or the counter for the morning routines) to refer back to if he starts to negotiate. But they finally know what needs to be done to get out the door and when they push back you can point them back to the card and they accept the fact that it is written there so maaaaay as well do it.

Now is when you can be more flexible. They can choose WHEN in their routine they brush their teeth, before or after getting their clothes on. They can swap out a song for a book and get THREE books at bedtime. This will help them feel more empowered while you still get everything done that needs doing. You can use your visual routine as more of a checklist.


One thought on “Using visuals to reduce power struggles and teach key skills and routines

  1. This is all really good Renee. Teaching Youngsters 101 is always a challenging course. :)). Teaching Adults…Atomic Habits..Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results. We all continue to learn.

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