A Unique Child

How to Use Symbols to Boost Communication in the Early Years

Adele Devine takes a colourful, symbolic approach to overcoming children’s difficulties with listening and communication…

Imagine you are in an unfamiliar place and need the toilet. You look around but there is no sign. There are lots of people, but you can’t communicate with them because they don’t understand your language. This is getting urgent and you’re starting to panic… Children with listening and communication difficulties, or those who have English as a second language, face this situation every day – but they needn’t do as there is a simple way we can avoid it: by using symbols. Symbols, particularly when colour-coded, can be a powerful tool for communicating with children in the early years, and have a wide range of applications in settings. What follows are just a few ideas you might like to try with your children.

Toilet trouble

To return to my first example, most settings now provide some visual symbol to indicate toilet. Most often it will be black and white. The child needs to be taught that this symbol represents toilet and how to use it to communicate their need. They will learn this by repetitive use of the symbol. Each time they go to the toilet they take the symbol and match it to one that is the same in the toilet. You can also experiment with using photographs of the toilet to match to the same photograph.

If they wear nappies, make the symbol or photograph a nappy or the changing area. Some children might need to use an object of reference and take the actual nappy with them – use what works for the individual child.

Ask for more

Children need a motivator to communicate. We may gradually build up a bank of photographs, but there will be times when we just don’t have a photograph or symbol and we don’t want to lose the moment. Having a stock of ‘more’ symbols can help with this. For example, a child likes bubbles being blown, but you don’t have a symbol. Instead, teach them to ask for ‘more.’ Make sure you say the word each time you use the symbol and quickly introduce the idea of using it for other motivators. Snack-time can be a good time to start.

Help needed

Children are very good at finding ways to get what they want without using speech. Maybe they will take your hand to open the snack cupboard or open a door. Providing the ‘help’ symbol gives them the power to communicate when there is nothing ready prepared.

Time’s up

Hold up this symbol whenever an activity is finished. Use it at the end of snack and tidy up time, and the end of session. You can also use it to request that a challenging behaviour ‘finish’ without having to use lots of language. Sometimes language can be seen as rewarding challenging behaviour. Many children use behaviour to seek attention – they don’t mind if the attention is negative.

Ready and waiting

This symbol was created for children who find waiting difficult. One of the best places to teach this symbol is in the car – each time you stop at traffic lights or have to wait show this symbol. When the waiting is over remove the symbol and praise the child if they have waited calmly. As a baby, our son would cry when we stopped at traffic lights and then, when we moved on, he would stop crying and look all smug. He thought his noise had made us start moving, so he would do it every time. This is how children learn that their negative behaviour can effect on our actions.

The amber colour relates to traffic lights and there is the visual reference to the clock. I saw the power of this symbol when I arrived at the school ICT room with my class of children with autism and found another class still using it. My expectations were not good and I was expecting a few meltdowns. But no – they surprised us all. I showed them the ‘waiting’ symbol and said “Waiting” very calmly and they did just that. This is a powerful symbol.

Take a seat

Sitting still and keeping hands down is difficult for a lot of children. Most will understand without a visual, but there are those who don’t. This symbol shows them exactly what you want them to do. It also means you do not need to keep disrupting the group by telling the child to sit well.

This symbol is only for use if you are expecting the child to sit in a chair because children can be very literal. Individual carpet sample squares can work well to get the children to sit well at carpet time. You can get these for next to nothing or even free from nice carpet shops, when you explain what you want to use them for.

Looking and listening

Display ‘good looking’ and ‘good listening’ symbols prominently and teach all of the children what they mean – you’ll be surprised how quickly they learn them. It’s important to always use symbols to reinforce positive behaviour and show your expectations. Don’t have images of negative behaviours such as ‘no throwing’ or ‘no hitting’ because they can easily be misread.

Finally, if you find that any symbols or strategies are helping a child in your setting then pass them on to the next practitioner or teacher. And why not give them to parents to use at home too? The more consistent their use, the greater their power.


Some children will connect with colours before specific images. By colour-coding the most basic symbols you include these children and help them to learn that different symbols have different uses. Colour-coding the background, as opposed to the actual symbol, is also helpful, as it allows the symbol itself to be seen clearly and provide a visual cue to the viewer. And when you need a symbol fast to suit a specific need you will quickly learn to find it by colour. Even if a child can understand black and white symbols in calm moments, when they are at crisis point we need to give them the quickest way to communicate with us.

Adele Devine is a teacher at Portesbery School & director of SEN Assist.