An Effective, Unconventional Parenting Tool for Toddler Challenges

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Parenting a baby has its own unique set of exhausting challenges, but blink your eye and you'll be parenting a toddler - a walking, talking, independence-asserting child. Suddenly it's a whole new ballgame! Lately I've discovered that a tool I used in my work as a pediatric Occupational Therapist has huge benefits for parenting my one year old. I didn't realize just how unconventional this tool was until the fourth person in a week who came into my home and saw it said, "You have to blog about this!"

The Power Of A Social Story

Tips and tricks for using social stories in your parenting to help communicate with your toddler. CanDo Kiddo

I've used social stories in my therapy sessions for years. They are most commonly used to help individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders understand what is expected of them in different situations or events. I've used social stories with children with a wide variety of challenges (beyond just Autism) with great success. 

So when I was recently faced with a few parenting challenges with our 12 month old, I turned to social stories to help me communicate to him what was expected. I had fun writing and illustrating simple little homemade books that we read together (a lot!) and lo and behold, they've worked! 

5 Keys To An Effective Toddler Social Story

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There are definitely books available that resemble social stories for toddlers - the entire series of books that begins with Hands Are Not For Hitting, the Little Dino series including Little Dinos Don't Bite,  the night weaning book Nursies When The Sun Shines, and a whole host of potty-training books like Once Upon A Potty {affiliates}. We definitely have checked out several gentle hands and no biting books from the library, but I found they lacked a few key elements that make home-made social stories more effective.

Here are some important factors for crafting an effective social story for your toddler:

  • Your toddler as the lead character
  • Familiar people and objects
  • Familiar language and routines
  • Familiar and favorite images: if you're not confident in your drawing abilities, you can also take and print photos
  • Be as specific as possible about the situation, the expected behavior and the consequences (if applicable)

Some tips for making a simple book: I traced a 4x6 photograph on several sheets of copy paper and cut them out. Once my stories were done, I slid them into a plastic photo album to create an instant book.

Gentle Night Weaning Using A Social Story

Breastfeeding and sleep are such sensitive and personal parenting topics, so this is no way intended to be a commentary on those. I merely use this as a real-life example of how to effectively write and use a social story with your toddler. 

At 20 weeks pregnant with a 12 month old who still consistently woke twice a night to nurse (a vast improvement from our months of sleep problems!), I felt that all parties involved were ready to night wean. I knew I wanted a gentle night weaning approach that capitalized on my son's expanding capability to understand what we say to him. So I wrote a social story about not nursing at night. It explained what his choices were if he woke up in the night and explained that he could nurse again in the morning. After some internal debate, I made the editorial decision to draw my boobs. And in an even tougher decision, I'm sharing my drawing on my boobs with you here today. All in the name of helping other parents! Here is our night-weaning social story:

using social stories as part of a gentle night weaning approach for toddlers. CanDo Kiddo

We read "Night-Night Mommy Milkies" 2-3 times (at his request!) at bedtime each night and then when I responded to his cries in the night, I held him in our usual rocking chair and "read" the story to him (it was dark and I had the book memorized so I just said it to him). I offered him his straw cup of cow's milk and his Mr. Woofers and paci (the comfort items described in the social story) and then put him back to bed.  After 2 nights of that, I shifted to just rubbing his back in his bed and giving him Mr. Woofers and his paci (he wasn't drinking any of the cow's milk offered anyway). After 3 nights he only woke once and after 5 nights he started sleeping through until 5am. Victory! 

One reason why I think this approach worked is my child's age and receptive language skills. I don't think this would work for night weaning a 6-month old. But, at 12 months I didn't feel like it was necessary to let him cry and scream for me, wonder why I wasn't coming with his Milkies and figure it out on his own that things had changed. I knew that he was able to understand a simple explanation of saying goodnight to the Milkies and then Good Morning when the sun comes up and the birds are chirping outside...and he proved me right!

Tackling Toddler Pinching and Biting Using a Social Story

Again, discipline is such a hot-button issue so this isn't intended to be a guideline for how to discipline your child - merely a description of how we include social stories into our approach. Our child is very rough with us, with other children and with our dog. We were at a loss for ideas to effectively address the pinching, scratching, biting, hair-pulling and eye poking that were a part of our daily lives. Everything I found about these behaviors in toddlers related them to anger or frustration or an inability to communicate. But this didn't fit what we were seeing at all. Instead, our little one seemed curious, happy, over-excited, and social when we saw his roughness emerge. 

So I wrote another social story. This one I called "Rowan Is Gentle Like a Bird." In it, I related the words gentle and rough to animals and since birds are one of our little one's favorites, I used that as his example of gentle. I detailed exactly what behaviors are too rough and what are some gentle ways to touch others (which we practice when we read the story). I also included the consequences of being gentle and the consequences of being rough.

We read "Rowan Is Gentle Like A Bird" every night at bedtime and before outings involving other kids (trips to the children's museum, library or park and play times with friends). I remind him often to be "gentle like a bird" and it definitely affects his behavior.

We still see the rough behaviors but they are greatly diminished. Partly I think we still see some due to the fact that a young toddler doesn't yet have impulse control. The roughness that seemed attention-seeking (especially towards Mommy and Daddy) has decreased significantly. Roughness when he's curious about other children or our dog and wants to interact is still a challenge but we see him responding to the words "gentle" and "rough" with increased consistency (which he didn't at all before and required hands-on redirection every time).

Overall, our social stories have helped us to communicate with our toddler, have provided opportunities to repeat important messages when he's calm and listening, and have helped us navigate some of our parenting challenges. 

Are you struggling with any toddler behaviors that a social story might help with? Share in the comments below or hop over to our Facebook page to share!

Toddler parenting tip - using social stories for challenging behaviors. CanDo Kiddo

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