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Autism and Christmas – Tom’s 21 Tips for an Autism-Friendly Christmas

Christmas can be a magical and exciting time but for many autistic children like my son Tom, the festive period is anything but wonderful.

Tom struggles with changes to his routine, worries about not understanding what is happening and why his usual activities and food are different. When he was younger, if visitors came to the house or we visited family and friends he’d become confused and unsettled as he didn’t know what was expected of him. He was often tearful, frustrated, and distressed.

We tried lots of things and now we know what to do to help Tom and our family have a more enjoyable and relaxing Christmas.  As he turned 21 this year, Tom shares 21 of his favourite tips to help you and your family prepare for an autism-friendly  Christmas. 

#1: Decide what’s the best way to ‘do’ Christmas for YOU and YOUR family.

Making a plan in the following way helped us:

✍🏻Grab a notebook and pen and have a think about the whole upcoming Christmas period.

📝Make a list with four columns headed Achievable, Desirable, High Risk, Impossible

🤔Think about what is planned or expected over Christmas and place each activity under one of the four columns

👏🏻Don’t aim for 💯%- if you can manage most of the achievable, one or two things in the desirable column and come through everything in the risky column you should rightly feel proud.

Don’t give up hope if nothing goes to plan. In our experience, over time many of our risky column activities became achievable.

#2: Make a personalised visual ‘All about Christmas ‘guide.

 Showing all the different things you might do at this time of the year this guide could include Christmas objects, Christmas food and activities that only happen at Christmas e.g., meeting Father Christmas or pulling Christmas crackers

You could make one together like mum and I did with drawings. A photo collage, Christmas scrapbook, or pictures of your family celebrating Christmas also work well.

Like many children with autism, I tend to forget social information, so a permanent visual guide was a great way to remind me what Christmas looks like.   

                                                       

#3: Take time to talk with your child about things that may be worrying them                                                                                  

I was worried about not having my usual breakfast – jammy toast and hot chocolate on Christmas day.

This might seem a little thing to worry about, but it was a huge feeling for me. Mum explained to me that I would have my usual breakfast and that made me feel better.

#4: Make realistic plans for shopping.

Mum tried to avoid taking me shopping during Christmas. The noisy crowds, strong smells, and bright lights in the shops made me feel confused and worried. If she couldn’t find a babysitter, we used to go at quieter times of the day with plenty of snacks to distract me!

Online shopping now makes things much easier

#5: Talk about social rules and different expectations that people might have around Christmastime.

When I was younger, having visitors to my house or going to visit family and friends over Christmas made me feel worried. I didn’t like being out of routine and felt anxious about what I should say and do. Practicing what to say when meeting people and having pictures to remind me what would happen and how I should behave, for example saying hello, please, and thank you really helped.

#6: Talk to your child’s teacher so you know what different things they might be doing and when.

Mum used to have a meeting with my teacher and support assistant to find out what activities were going to be happening and how best to help me.

By letting us know when there would be changes to my routine, for example, doing Christmas crafts instead of my usual lessons or practicing for the carol service I could prepare myself for the changes and didn’t get as anxious. 

Planning for the Christmas party so that I could have my favourite drink and a quiet area to go to when things got too much also made me feel much calmer about going to the party. 

#7: Make a list of special interest gift ideas that you can suggest to relatives and friends when they ask what presents they can buy.

When I was younger, I didn’t get excited about getting toys as presents. But I loved getting things about what I was interested in, for example, lorries and trains. Activities based on my special interests were also good ideas.

Among my favourite Christmas presents were a pillowcase with trains on, a trip to the railway museum and of course getting lots of Eddie Stobart lorries!

#8: Make sure any visual schedules are updated to show any changes to routine or special Christmas events.

Sudden changes to my usual routine like a last-minute practice, craft activity or even something small like moving to a different classroom or popping to see a friend can upset me and cause me to worry. It’s always better to give me as much warning as possible of any changes so I can prepare and cope with them.

It can be exhausting to keep up with all the different things that are happening. A TomTag visual timetable really helps to show me what is happening and when. It’s perfect for use at home and school.

#9: Involve your child in deciding where the decorations should go.

I get worried when there are unexpected changes in things around me. So, if Christmas decorations suddenly appear at home or school, it can shock me. Involving me in deciding where the decorations go and letting me help decorate the Christmas tree can help me feel less overwhelmed.

It’s also important to let me know when the decorations are being taken down too. It’s less stressful for me when there is a warning and a reason given.

#10: Keep sensory armour to hand for trips to the shop, parties, and other festive events where there might be sensory overload.

Loud music, twinkly lights, everything and everyone looking different can be overwhelming for me.

Sensory armour can help and includes:

🎧Headphone to cut out some of the noise and sound. I can also listen to my favourite music to help reassure me when things get tricky

🧢A cap to help shut out some of the flashing lights

🕶Dark glasses to reduce light intensity.

#11: Let your child wear their Christmas costume or party outfit around the house

When possible, buy or make your child’s Christmas costume or party outfit early.

Let them wear it around the house for say, 5-10 minutes over a few days to help them become comfortable with how it feels.

I don’t like the feel of any clothes made out of wool or anything with a label in it as it feels scratchy on my skin.  Fancy dress costumes are also a no-no. I much prefer to wear my own clothes. I don’t mind wearing a Christmas hat– if the label is cut out and I don’t have to wear it for a long time – just long enough for mum to get some photographs is usually ok!

#12: Use an advent calendar or other visual to prepare for and understand the countdown to Christmas.

I used to find traditional advent calendars quite fiddly. When I was younger, we had a large fabric Christmas tree with 24 large, numbered pockets. Each pocket contained chocolate that I could easily reach.

Other ways to make an advent calendar include a Christmas Book Advent Calendar – unwrap a Christmas book each day, little gift boxes filled with knick-knacks, or a treasure hunt with clues.

You can use TomTag to make a fun countdown too!

#13: Prepare your child for how to greet family and friends

Prepare for visitors and visits from family and friends by talking to your child about who they are going to see and how to greet them.

I spent lots of time practicing with mum how to greet people.  Being hugged makes me feel uneasy so I learned how to shake hands with friends and family. I do love being hugged by my sister though!

#14: Discuss the escape plans that it’s ok for your child to use if everything gets too much for them.

It was so important for me to know that if things got too much for me there was a quiet space I could go to ‘escape’ Christmas. When I was younger I agreed with mum that I would show a red card when I needed some time out in the quiet space.

#15: Be prepared that your child might not be able to sit at the table for as long as would like (or maybe not at all).

Be upfront about this with your family and friends if you’re having Christmas dinner at their homes.

I’m happy to sit at the table now for my meal but often need to leave the table when I’ve eaten for a movement break. Knowing that this is OK and that I’m not going to be forced to sit at the table means I don’t get anxious. When I was younger, I had a favourite book or toy to keep me distracted during mealtimes.

#16: For children who won’t eat a traditional Christmas dinner prepare and freeze their meals in advance to reduce the workload on the day.

I used to be a very picky eater. This was because I don’t like changes. I liked things including my food, to be predictable. Having the same foods such as pasta, bread and chips meant I didn’t have to worry about new tastes or feelings in my mouth. I preferred to eat foods that I knew tasted and felt the same.  I also avoided eating meat as this was difficult for me to chew.

My favourite Christmas dinner used to be chicken nuggets and chips – Mum always put some peas on my plate, just in case!

As I’ve got older my fussy eating has changed. I now love a traditional Christmas dinner and my favourite vegetable is broccoli!

#17: Playfully and patiently practice Christmas traditions

These could include receiving and unwrapping presents, pulling crackers, and wearing hats so that your child knows what to expect and can join in.

Here are some things that we did to help me understand what happens at Christmas:

Play wrapping games. Mum wrapped up some of my things – clothes, books, toys and I had to open the paper and find what was inside. We’d play a guessing game by trying to guess what was inside by the feel and shape of the parcel. We used to have something square, round and rectangular so I could also practice my shape names.  Chocolate was always my favourite thing to unwrap!

Pulling crackers. We bought some cheap crackers and practiced pulling them, so I got used to the ‘bang’ sound and it didn’t come as a surprise. I got used to wearing the paper hat from the cracker and looking for the joke inside them.

#18: Think and talk about the sensory overload and extra social demands at Christmas parties.

The school Christmas party used to be very overwhelming for me. Loud music, everybody looking different and the expectation that I should be joining in with dancing and games. 

These things helped the party be less stressful for me:

📝Using a visual schedule showing me what was going to happen

🤗Having a ‘buddy group of friends to help me join in

🕺🏻Practicing dancing at home!

🤫Making sure there was a quiet place for me to go to if things got too much.

 

#19: Some children may be overwhelmed by many presents all in one go. Try introducing gifts one at a time over the day or over several days.

Alternatively, adopt an advent style approach and bring out a small gift each day on the run-up to Christmas day.

On Christmas day, I used to stagger my present opening. I opened some presents in the morning and some in the afternoon. Often, we went on holiday at Christmas time so I would open most of my presents after Christmas once we were back home and in my own time. This worked well for me as I didn’t feel stressed about deciding what to unwrap and doing it all at once.  I could enjoy opening my presents.

#20: Leave some areas of the house undecorated so there’s always a quiet place for your child to retreat to if they need it.

I liked having a Christmas-free zone to escape to when I got fed up with the flashing lights, glittery things, and loud music around the house.  This decoration-free space helped me feel calmer when things got too much.

#21: Many autistic children don’t like surprises so it might help not to wrap presents up.

You could also just tell them what’s inside or use clear cellophane or plain paper for wrapping with a picture attached showing what’s inside.

When I was younger, it didn’t bother me to get a wrapped present, but I didn’t have the ‘surprise feeling’ you usually get before you open it. I didn’t really understand the idea of a surprise, so I had a mixture of wrapped and unwrapped presents.

I used to love anything to do with numbers so receiving a large pack of number cards one Christmas was a lovely surprise!

Tom and I would love to know any tips you have to make Christmas more autism-friendly? 

Clare & Tom x

Useful resources:

  • Christmas & Birthdays Sticker Pack

  • Christmas Survival Guide

  • Christmas Survival Toolkit

  • I Know What To Expect At Christmas & Birthdays Kit

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How Self-Talk Helps with Back-to-School Anxiety

Self-talk was key in helping Tom manage his back-to-school anxiety.

 Self-talk is rehearsing silently something that you think someone you trust would say to you in a situation you find tricky or challenging. Being able to self-talk is useful as it is something a child can do to help themselves. It has been a game-changer for Tom as he can use this whenever he is feeling overwhelmed.

Let’s get started

You can use this Prompt Sheet to help your child develop self-talk to manage their back-to-school anxiety. 

Here are our tips for using the sheet which is available as a free download using the link below:

  • Let your child know that lots of people are anxious about going back to work or school. This helps them feel that their worries about going back to school are valid.
  • Give your child the words to describe their feelings. Introducing and explaining the phrases ‘back to school blues’ and the ‘oh no feeling’ help them understand the emotion and feeling behind their back-to-school anxiety.
  • Ask your child to show you how strong their ‘oh no feeling ‘is. If they struggle with language try simple visual scales using either numbers ( 1-5) or the intensity of colours (green – red) to make it easier for them to rate their feelings. The TomTag feelings tag, a thermometer-style sequence of 6 feelings faces, is a good option to use.
  • Explain that their ‘oh no feeling’ is the right feeling but too big. Like a shout that needs to be shrunk to the right size – a whisper. The drawings  on the Prompt Sheet are a good way to show this
  • Tell them that to shrink the ‘oh no feeling’ they should think of 3 good reasons why going back to school is ok and say these reasons to themselves when they feel the ‘oh no feeling’ starting

Rating anxiety levels 

Tom used his I can do it Share How I feel Tag to show us the intensity of his feelings about going back to school. 

If you have any tips to share on reducing back-to-school anxiety please leave a comment below. 

  • Back-to-School Self-Talk Prompt Sheet

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • Feelings Bundle

  • I Can Do It Pack My Bag For School Kit

  • My School Kit Sticker Pack

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Transition to secondary school for autistic children – 10 tips for smoothing the move

mum hugging boy in school uniform on secondary school offer day

“I’m feeling worried about eating in the canteen.”

“I am concerned that the lessons are going to be a long time.”

“I worry about wearing my blazer all day.”

These were some of the worries my autistic son Tom had when he was moving from his beloved small and familiar mainstream primary school to a much larger secondary school.

The move from primary to secondary school is one of the major transitions in a child’s life. All children are likely to feel some level of worry about this move but for many children on the autistic spectrum, who crave stability and predictability like Tom does, this transition can be particularly difficult.

Secondary school transition issues

Like many children with autism, Tom has anxiety about the unknown and finds it difficult to think flexibly. He felt safe and secure with familiar routines established in primary school. Not being able to predict what might happen in his new secondary school and the thought of dealing with change and different rules was a real worry to him.

As a parent, my worries were mainly around his lack of social understanding, his communication difficulties, and his sensory challenges.

How would he:

  • cope with the many new social situations he would encounter in secondary school?
  • manage his feelings and emotions when things didn’t go as planned?
  • deal with the increased sensory demands of his new environment? 

Preparation is key

Every child with autism is different so a ‘one size fits all’ approach to transition is therefore not going to work. It’s vital that transition planning should be personalised to each child. By preparing your child as much as possible beforehand using some of the tips we’ve listed below, we hope you’ll be able to make those first days and weeks in the new school a lot less worrying for you and your child.

Extracts from Tom’s transition to secondary school booklet
Extracts from Tom’s secondary school transition booklet

Top 10 transition tips

Tip #1

Arrange for your child to visit their new school several times before they start and at different times of the day e.g. lunchtime, breaktime and during lessons. Tom made frequent, short visits which helped make his new school more familiar to him and took away some of the worry he felt about eating his lunch in the canteen.

Tip #2

Make a “My School transition booklet” which your child can keep and use as they need in order to reduce anxiety.

Tom’s booklet included a map of the layout of the school, photographs of key staff (particularly the teaching assistants that were going to support him) and photographs taken of him in the important places, like the school canteen, main hall, classrooms and a safe place for times of stress.

A photograph of Tom on the stairs in the school corridor with his written note of the correct corridor etiquette

A photograph of Tom on the stairs in the school corridor with his written note of the correct corridor etiquette – “walk on the left hand side so we don’t get squashed and we can let other people pass” was a simple inclusion in the booklet but meant that he knew what was expected of him when the corridors filled with students.

Tip #3

Establish a link with a member of staff who can act as a mentor and home-school liaison. Set up a home-school book to pass on information about any worries/concerns or any relevant developments at home.

Tip #4

Create a personal profile written with the help of your child to include all the information new staff should know about them. Tom’s profile mentioned his need to have frequent movement breaks and his worry about the long lessons.

Tip #5

Get used to a homework routine in advance of the new school start. Start simply with a 10-15-minute task at a regular time each evening in a quiet environment.

Tip #6

Make a visual timetable showing the school day to make lesson order & break times more predictable. The TomTag School Timetable kit is ideal for creating portable and personalised timetables for your child without the hassle of printing, laminating or Velcro!

Tip #7

Practice the journey to and from school, making sure your child knows the location of bus stops, road-crossings, meeting points or anything else significant on their journey.

Tip #8

Familiarise your child with their new school uniform and deal with any irritating seams or labels. Tom practised wearing his blazer at home so that he got used to how it felt and was also told he could take it off during lessons.

Tip #9

Practice packing the correct items for school. The TomTag school bag packing checklist would be perfect for this!

Ask your child’s current primary school to work on preparing your child for the transition by including activities around organising and managing their own items at school.

Tip #10

TomTag feelings notebook with example page filled inSet aside time to discuss your child’s worries and concerns about the transition. Encourage them to write down or draw about any concerns they have about moving to their new school. Remind them of relaxation and self-help techniques they could use if they are anxious. The TomTag Feelings Notebook is a helpful place to record worries and concerns. 

Transition to secondary school resources

The National Autistic Society website has some useful information about transitioning to secondary school.

Leicestershire Autism Outreach Service also have a comprehensive transition resource pack that’s well worth checking out. 

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • I Can Do It Pack My Bag For School Kit

  • I Know What To Expect At School Kit

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook

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The Challenge in Challenging Behaviour

If someone cannot tell you how they feel they will try to show you how they feel.

Language is one way to convey emotion, but of course it is not the only way: sign language and symbol communication systems such as TomTag feelings tags are equally as effective. People will express their feelings through their behaviour when they either 1) do not have a communication strategy to hand, or 2) when they themselves cannot identify the feelings they are experiencing.

You will have heard the phrase challenging behaviour. And you will have come across the common misconception that it should be stamped out. The behaviour is communication, we do not want to stamp that out.

Consider what the challenge actually is:

  • The person exhibiting the behaviour is being challenged by a problem in their own life.
  • The challenge they are setting you is to work out what that problem is and to help them solve it.
  • Their behaviour is simply the communication tool they are using to alert you to the problem.

When faced with behaviours that challenge you, if all you do is try to prevent the behaviour you will not escape the challenge. Suppose the behaviour I am using to express my difficulty with the world as I find it is to hit my head against a wall, and you put a helmet on me to stop this from hurting me. Although my head is safe you have silenced my communication, so I will need to find a new way to express the difficulty, perhaps I will bite myself, or hurt you. I am not doing these things maliciously, I am just seeking to be understood.

Helping me to recognize and then express my emotions using communication strategies such as signs or symbols gives me a way to express my difficulties clearly to you without needing to resort to challenging behaviour. You need to ensure these communication methods are as effective as behaviour for me, I want to be sure that I get as much help when I point to the symbol for ‘sad’ as I used to get when I expressed ‘sad’ by hurting myself.

The word challenge is right. It is a challenge to work out what someone else is communicating to us, especially when we are trying to do that for someone who doesn’t communicate using traditional communication methods or for someone who experiences the world in a different way to us, due to sensory differences or neurodiversity.

On my course Exploring the Impact the Senses have on Behaviour, we do just that! When behaviours stem from sensory causes they require a different response from behaviours whose origins are elsewhere. Behaviour triggered by the senses can be low level niggly gripey grumpy type behaviour or it can be big explosive behaviours such as biting, kicking and lashing out.

When explosive sensory behaviours occur hormones flood the brain and a person loses access to their ordinary channels of communication; language, signs and symbols no longer work. On Exploring the Impact the Senses have on Behaviour we look at how we can communicate in a sensory way to support that person. We look at how practices such as externalizing emotional regulation and using symbol support (e.g. TomTag) to express emotion can help avoid crisis situations. We also do the sensory detective work to better understand the triggers for these behaviours and how we can avoid them.

Connect with Joanna to learn more about her remarkable work and brilliant, interactive, training courses.

TheSensoryProjects.co.uk

Facebook @TheSensoryProjects

Twitter @Jo3Grace

Linkedin Joanna Grace

  • Back-to-School Self-Talk Prompt Sheet

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • Feelings & Emotions Sticker Pack

  • Feelings Tag-O-Meter

  • I Can Do It Manage My Feelings Kit

  • I Can Do It Share How I Feel Mini Kit

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Coping with a family Christmas for an anxious teen with autism


For my son, Tom, thinking about our family Christmas meal is causing him anxiety. Spending time together and creating memories over a shared meal – it’s what many people love about Christmas – but it’s not so easy for an anxious teen with autism. Continue reading Coping with a family Christmas for an anxious teen with autism

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Feelings thermometer and diary

It’s often the simplest things that have the biggest impact.

A seemingly simple thing that gets forgotten, ignored or left unnoticed can cause a big problem down the line. Simple ideas, simple tools, simple changes might be all that’s needed to solve a problem or do a better job than a complex solution.

A Share how I feel tag, with its thermometer-style colour faces scale, has to be one of the simplest uses for the TomTag system but since introducing it less than nine months ago has become our best selling product.  It can be used in lots of different ways which is perhaps one of the keys to it’s success – we’ve given some ideas in this free download guide.

Having recommended in our guide that using a feelings diary can help to identify patterns of emotions or behaviour and the triggers that could be causing them, we decided to make our own! 

My TomTag Feelings Notebook

Keeping a diary gets you into the habit of noticing and naming how you feel in different situations throughout the day or at times when you feel most anxious or worried.

There’s a scale for rating the strength of your feelings and a guide to help build up a vocabulary to describe your different feelings and emotions.

By making notes about what happened during the day or at key points you can start to build up a picture over time  which helps you to see patterns and identify the common triggers or stressors. Quite often these might be simple things that go unnoticed day to day but are easier to spot once patterns emerge. 

It’s often the simplest things that have the biggest impact.


  • Back-to-School Self-Talk Prompt Sheet

  • cover image feelings notebook extra stickers

    Extra sticker sheets for Feelings Notebook

  • Feelings & Emotions Sticker Pack

  • Feelings Bundle

  • Feelings Tag-O-Meter

  • I Can Do It Manage My Feelings Kit

  • I Can Do It Share How I Feel Mini Kit

  • I Know What To Expect – My Vaccination Mini Kit

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook

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Surviving Christmas with help from TomTag

Christmas is a magical and exciting time but for many children with autism and other SEN, the festive period can be anything but wonderful.

Changes in routine, a house pulsating with flashing Christmas lights and a steady stream of visitors can be too overwhelming and lead to sensory overload, anxiety, distress and confusion.
Making adjustments that help your child cope better at this time of the year will hopefully allow them and all the family to have a more enjoyable and relaxing experience.
It’s also a good opportunity to work on important social skills that can be transferred to other situations at different times of the year as well.

my daily routineJust another day

Keeping to the same familiar routines as much as possible, even on Christmas Day, can be key to helping things run more smoothly. There are no rules to say things have to be done a certain way so do whatever suits your family best.

It’s sometimes not possible to avoid some disturbance or change to the regular schedule at this time of year. Children who struggle with changes to routine can find this very unsettling. If they use a visual schedule at home or school, this is a great way to make sure they know about (and can prepare themselves for) anything different that’s going to happen.

If different or unusual foods are likely to be an issue, think about preparing and freezing your child’s favourite meal ahead of the big day so that it’s easy to serve alongside everyone else’s dinner and gives you one thing less to worry about.

decorations and christmas symbolsDecorations

Flashing lights, glittery objects and jingling bells all around the house are natural triggers for sensory overload. Let your child help to choose the decorations you buy and put up and consider decorating gradually over a few days so they are not overwhelmed immediately. Make sure to leave some areas of the house undecorated so there’s always somewhere for the child to retreat if needed.

Be aware of sensory triggers such as balloons, Christmas crackers, party poppers, festive music – consider using headphones or ear defenders at parties, carol concerts or similar events if sudden or loud noises are disturbing.  

Use an “All about Christmas” symbol list or simple social story to support a conversation with your child to familiarise them with all the different things they can expect to find at Christmas time.

Social expectations

family visits tagsChristmas is usually a time of increased social contact and festive events with family and friends. Use a visual schedule to show what’s going to happen before any visitors come to the house or when you’re going to parties, visiting family and friends, church services, etc.

Maybe even keep a separate tag as a checklist to show all the family members they may be meeting and what an appropriate social contact might be for each group (eg. hugs are ok for family, hand shake for friends, etc.).

There’ll be lots of opportunities to teach social skills such as learning to greet visitors appropriately and saying please and thank you. Include relevant symbols in your visit schedule list or use another tag that you keep handy for a discreet reminder of social behaviour rules.

Presents

Many children with autism don’t particularly like surprises and aren’t good at faking delight if they get an unwanted gift. Some may prefer to have their presents left unwrapped or, if they do like the unwrapping part, they might want you to tell them what’s inside first.

They may also be overwhelmed by a large number of presents in one go. Try introducing them one at a time over the day (or several days) or adopt an advent calendar-style approach, bringing out a small gift each day in the run up to Christmas.

Don’t forget to put batteries in toys in advance so that they can be played with straight away!

Relax!

Above all, remember that this is your Christmas as well. Get as much support from family and friends as possible and share out the workload wherever you can. Get children involved by giving them jobs to do which will keep them occupied and give them something to focus on.

We used the kit I know what to expect at Christmas & birthdays for the examples here. We know it can be a particularly taxing and stressful time of year for our loved ones with extra sensory and emotional needs, so there’s also an expanded version of the basic kit available which includes additional tags and blank buttons plus a Feelings & Emotions sticker pack. We call this our Christmas survival kit

This guide is available as a free downloaded using the link below.

  • Christmas & Birthdays Sticker Pack

  • Christmas Survival Guide

  • Christmas Survival Toolkit

  • I Know What To Expect At Christmas & Birthdays Kit

 

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TomTag Feelings tag-o-meter

The TomTag feelings tag-o-meter is a visual feelings thermometer that can be used to support the development of all the skills required for good emotional intelligence.

It can help children to understand and communicate their feelings. By linking with a visual reminder of appropriate actions and strategies, they can learn how to manage those feelings too.

Regular use of this type of visual scale helps children to recognise the causes and triggers for their feelings and emotions. They can work out ways to help themselves improve their responses and handle things better in the future.

Let’s get started

feelings thermometer tag with what's wrong tagAt the start of the school day it’s helpful to know how a child is feeling to assess their readiness for learning today. Use the feelings thermometer as a way for them to quickly and easily communicate this to you. 

You might find it useful to provide a list of further options (like the red tag shown here) to help you identify the cause of any problems. For example, are they sad because they are hungry or tired, too hot or too cold, are the surroundings too noisy or bright?

Once any issues have been dealt with appropriately the child will be more able to access and engage with their learning.

What’s different

Are you expecting a change to routine, an unusual event or a visit to a new place today? Use the same approach to rate how comfortable the child is about this. If they are frightened, worried or anxious you can try explaining more about the reasons for the change or event or what they can expect to happen during the day or the visit.

Encourage the child to think about whether the strength of their feeling is in proportion to the situation. Does their reaction match the level of the problem? If not, discuss strategies they can use to deal with their feelings and talk about what a more appropriate response might be.

Get down to work

Before starting a task or activity, ask the child to rate their anxiety or confidence level about what they have to do. This information can help you to decide what support they might need to be able to complete the task successfully or it can open a discussion about whether their anxiety is proportional and realistic for the task faced. For example, are they:

very anxious and not sure what they need to do or worried that they are not capable of doing it?

reasonably sure of what they need to do but could use a little guidance just to get started?

feeling confident about the task and happy to try doing it alone?

 

How was that?

Revisiting the scale once a task, activity or event has finished offers an opportunity to reflect back and learn from it. Was their actual experience better or worse than they had expected it to be? How would they feel if they were now faced with the same event again?

If they were initially very anxious but with support were able to succeed, should this make them more confident about the next time they face the same task or a new one?

Another good time to check in with the feelings thermometer is after school, particularly as they may keep emotions locked up until they get home. Just as at the start of the school day, it’s a quick and easy way to communicate how they’re feeling and alerts you to any issues that have occurred during the day that might need further investigation or discussion before settling down to homework or evening activities.

What happened there?

strategy tags to manage emotionsSensory overload, changes to routine, difficulties processing information, social interactions or being tired or hungry are all common triggers for anger or challenging behaviour.

Getting a child to think about and try to understand what made them angry or prompted their behaviour begins to develop their emotional self-management skills. Using a feelings diary can be a good way to identify patterns of behaviour and incident triggers and plan for minimising stress at key points.

Encourage the child to use a feelings scale to start recognising how they feel or what their impulses are when their anger level starts to build. Set up some different coloured tags for each level like the ones shown here. Use each list as a reminder of suitable calming ideas they can try to help prevent their progress up the anger/stress scale and bring their feelings under control.

This technique can also be used to identify and respond to inappropriate behaviour from over excitement or a high arousal state.

Just saying

Children not only need to understand and interpret their own feelings, it’s important for them to be able to recognise the feelings of other people around them too.

When a child is familiar with using the feelings tag-o-meter to rate their own feelings and emotions, they can build their skills in appreciating other people’s feelings too.  

As a parent, carer or teacher, you might want to let the child know that you are pleased with their work or attitude today. They may not have behaved well and you want them to understand that makes you sad. Reinforcing your words by showing them on the scale how you feel helps them develop their ability to recognise and interpret verbal and non-verbal emotional signals.

Let’s be friends

school behaviour prompt tagYou can take a similar approach when dealing with social interactions between the child and their classmates, friends and family. If there’s been a disagreement or incident, try using the feelings scale to help those involved communicate with each other about what happened, how they are feeling and how they might be able to better control their actions in the future. Our School Timetable sticker pack (included in the kit “I know what to expect at school”) has a number of useful behaviour-related symbols that would help with identifying positive strategies in these situations.

The more practice a child has at acknowledging and recognising their feelings, using different coping techniques and appropriate communication strategies, the more relaxed and content they can be knowing that they have the skills to cope. A child who can identify his own emotions is more likely to be able to identify the emotions of others. Children who can see a situation from the view point of others are more able to engage in problem-solving and other social activities. 

This guide is available as a free downloaded using the link below. The guide for this topic also covers the information in our post Understanding feelings and emotional intelligence.

  • Back-to-School Self-Talk Prompt Sheet

  • cover image feelings notebook extra stickers

    Extra sticker sheets for Feelings Notebook

  • Feelings & Emotions Sticker Pack

  • Feelings Bundle

  • Feelings Tag-O-Meter

  • I Can Do It Manage My Feelings Kit

  • I Can Do It Share How I Feel Mini Kit

  • I Know What To Expect – My Vaccination Mini Kit

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook

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Understanding feelings and emotional intelligence

Emotional Intelligence – what is it?

Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to be aware of and recognise our emotions, understand and express them, and to realise how they affect those around us. Emotional intelligence is known to be a key factor in success in life, quality of relationships and overall happiness.

What type of emotions and feelings do we have? 

Anger

Angry, irritated, mad, furious, upset


We can get angry for lots of different reasons. It can happen when we feel threatened or offended or when we can’t have something that we really want. Our children will often display anger and challenging behaviour when they are finding something difficult, confusing or uncomfortable but are unable to communicate the problem to us in other ways.

Sadness

Sad, unhappy, disappointed, depressed, hurt


Emotions themselves are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Everyone will, and should, experience being unhappy, down or disappointed at times. Learning how to recognise and respond to feelings of sadness in a positive way is good for our emotional health.

Fear & anxiety

Anxious, nervous, frightened, scared, tense


Fear can be a useful emotion when it stops us doing things that might be dangerous or bad for us. It works against us when it stops us doing important things that we need to do or when we are unnecessarily worried or fearful about what might happen to us. Being overly anxious affects our ability to focus, learn, and achieve things.

Happiness

Calm, satisfied, happy, relaxed, glad


When a child is happy, calm and relaxed they will be more able and willing to focus, listen, learn and communicate. We can help them by learning what they need and would benefit from in their physical and social environments in order to achieve that status.

Excitement

Excited, antsy, energetic, bouncy, aroused


When children have difficulties communicating, it’s easy to misinterpret their behaviour and wrongly identify the cause. For example,  a child with autism may display repetitive motor behaviour such as flapping or spinning but they may need this sensory stimulation to deal with extremes of excitement and arousal as much as they do when overwhelmed by other emotions.

 

How to use a TomTag feelings tag-o-meter to develop the skills for good emotional intelligence