How to teach children the concept of “later”

early intervention Jan 19, 2022

(Photo Credit: 61311524 © Poznyakov |

How to teach children the concept of “later.”

One of the reasons for challenging behaviour in young children, particularly if they have a language delay, is not getting what they want right at that moment.

They want it, and they want NOW!

And they are not pleased if your answer is “not now, later”.

And that is because the concept of later is vague.

For young children, the concept of time is hard to grasp.

The way they think of time is: “now” and “not now”.

But that is enough to get started and teach them how time is passing and how they can anticipate or decide what´s going to happen in the future.

Here are four ideas on how to help young children with developmental delays or autism to develop the concept of time so that they learn to wait for something:

1. Routines

Setting up routines and sticking to them is an excellent tool for children to know what´s happening now and what will happen later. If you stick to a set routine, your child will know that every day, right after breakfast, they get dressed, in that order.

After years of having the same afternoon routine with my children, they know that after homework and chores, they can watch TV. They never ask for the TV when they get home from school, as with a routine, they learned that “first homework, then TV”, and now they don´t need to be reminded.

Set up routines where there are nice activities or treats later in the day, so children naturally accept, “first I do this, and later I get to do something I really enjoy”.

In preschool, some exciting toys may only come out at the end of the day, or at home, tv is only on in the evening. So you make it natural for your child to accept that great things will happen, but they need to wait for them.

2. Picture Schedules

This is one of the best ways to represent the passing of time for children.

You can start with two pictures initially. First snack, then playground, or first story then painting. Using two pictures might be just enough for young children. Remember that they think of time as now/not now.

But if your child is already using daily or weekly schedules, indicate when the activity will happen when you say, “later”.

My autistic son Sebastian often reminds me how vague the concept of later is. When I tell him, “you can do this later”, he often replies, “mum, can you be more specific?”. He wants to know when later is: 3 o´clock? After dinner? Sunday? When is “later”?

3. Practice Waiting

Waiting for a reward is a good strategy to learn the passing of time. They have to sit patiently and wait, but something good is coming!

If your child can´t wait for long, practice waiting in simple ways. For example, ask your child to sit down and wait while you open a pack of chocolate buttons (pretend it´s hard and it´s taking you 10 seconds to open).

Make buns together, as the child has to wait for 20 minutes patiently before you can take them out of the oven.

If waiting is hard for your child, start with simple activities where they only have to wait for a few seconds.

As your child gets older, you can schedule special days that will happen soon, St. Patrick´s Day, a birthday party or a trip to the zoo, where they have to wait a few days before the event.

4. Use A Visual Timer

Be careful when you introduce a timer for the first time.

For example, if the first time you introduce the timer to your child is when you give her the Ipad and you set the timer for 20 minutes, your child will not like the timer because it´s limiting access to the Ipad, something they love.

However, if you introduce the timer when you read stories at night, it may not be a problem because your child is naturally tired and wants to go to sleep. Set the timer to read books for 20 minutes, and then turn off the lights. 

With this, you are teaching how long “now” is. How long they are reading stories in bed for, or how long they have in the bath, or how long it´s free-play in the classroom. And when the timer rings, that's when what they are doing “now” finishes.

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