Chronicles of a Nonverbal Toddler: Storytime Travails

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Nonverbal Toddler Ish Mom
Same, display, same.

I’ve taken Big A to toddler storytime at our local library since he was four months old, patting myself on the back all the while. Now my hands are too full of a kicking, screeching, nonverbal toddler for self-congratulation. As my oldest grows so do his meltdowns. Storytime was fun and games when he was more of a… potato. All big eyes and delighted silence. Now that he has mobility his needs and wants are not as compatible with a structured storytime.

Toddler meltdowns are confounding on the best of days. Big A’s lack of verbal communication and seeming sensory issues can make benign interactions problematic. Or, I should say benign to me. I haven’t quite figured what is and is not benign to my son. 

Big A’s meltdowns at the library are disruptive and embarrassing. So far we’ve made it every week, but I won’t begrudge or beat myself up for skipping if we seem to be having a really bad morning. I believe in storytime, it’s important for littles. Important enough to (sometimes literally) drag ourselves there week after week.

Nonverbal Toddler Ish Mom

“Just Read To Him More At Home”

Reading aloud is beneficial no matter where we are, but storytime is special. Here’s why:

  • Having to listen to another adult: I need my boys to be have the experience of attending to an adult who is not their caregiver before preschool. If they don’t have that skill there will be unsavory natural consequences for them in the school system. Speaking of skills needed for school…
  • Sitting still while listening to other adult: Practice breeds proficiency and sitting still is no exception. Being unable to sit still in school can disrupt the boys’ (and everyone elses) learning.
  • Library love: Going to events at the library designates it as a special place and hopefully fosters a lifelong relationship.
  • Print motivation: Hearing a story read aloud in an entertaining way (and seeing the other children enjoy it!) at storytime sets up an expectation that books are fun.
  • More books: When librarians choose different books every week we are exposed to diverse authors, narrative styles, and points of view.
  • New songs: Librarians are children song hoarders. We learn so many new, educational songs to bring home. Singing builds phonological awareness, while rhythmic movement helps with spatial skills and eventually mathematics!
  • Grown-up friends: I’ve met the most wonderful people at storytime. I’m making life-long friends.
Nonverbal Toddler Storytime Ish Mom
Big A will sit still for the parachute

Getting In Front Of The Meltdown

Not having a plan makes me feel powerless and I don’t react well to feeling powerless. I’ve brainstormed some coping skill to put into place in an attempt to stave off meltdowns before they happen:

  • Exhaust him first: I take Big A to the playground for about an hour before the library. I chase him around screaming nonsensically about my “gettin’ hands.” Big A loves every second.
  • Check the bottom rungs of the “hierarchy of needs:” Is Big A hungry? That’s cool, I gave him a snack at the playground and have more in my purse. Same with water. Are his shoes and clothing comfortable? Let me check before we get out of the car. Does he feel safe? How’s his diaper?
  • Bring appropriate things to throw: When Big A gets upset things go flying. I discouraged this until he had a meltdown in front of his speech therapist. She said that Big A wasn’t really throwing, but dropping, because seeing something fall in front of his vision was soothing to him. She suggested that we replace the behavior and give him something safe to drop. Cue a empty Parmesan cheese container full of cotton pom-poms. Sure enough, Big A drops these in front of his face and calms.
  • Can’t read my can’t read my can’t read my can’t read my: Poker face (did you sing it?). I can’t stress enough how important it is–and how hard it is–to remain the eye of the meltdown storm. No matter what my face remains neutral, my tone calm. Big A will follow my lead. He may meander, but he’s at least watching. I can’t lead him astray. If a meltdown has already started this helps us the most.

Nonverbal Toddler Ish Mom

It Takes A Village

All my plans and good intentions would be worthless without the help of the amazing caregivers who attend storytime with us. If I had to do this all alone I’m not sure we would go every week. At the library, no one stares when Big A has a meltdown (except to make eye contact with me and smile).

No one minds if Big A wanders around. They talk to him and sing with him, help him with the hand motions, get him an instrument, help him use it. Every single adult. Big A is usually open to these interventions and they free me to stay and interact with Little A. When I do need to get up and intervene, Little A is taken from my arms without having to ask. It’s usually the same wonderful lady but I know any one of the caregivers would do the same. Big A has aged into the 2-5 year old storytime, which is more structured. Those mornings Little A is held most of the time by someone else (shout out to my storytime angel, C).

Last week an older gentleman learned to sign “train” and “car” so he could talk to Big A. Everyone asks for updates about appointments and therapies. The librarians tell me not to worry about Big A being a disturbance. A woman posted on my Facebook wall “you’re a good momma” after one rough storytime.

I had tears in my eyes writing this section.

Nonverbal Toddler Ish Mom
Not the happiest boy during his alphabet activity, but not yelling either #sittingstillforthewin

So…How’s It Going?

Better and better each week, my friends. Getting lots of physical activity in first helps a lot. So would not forgetting the damned Parmesan cheese container of pom poms. Big A has not screamed, kicked, etc, much in the last two weeks (we go to 2-3 storytimes per week). He may lay on the floor and whine, but he’ll also watch the kids quietly. He’ll wander around the room and doesn’t seem to be paying much attention, but he’s there. We’re there. And that seems to be most of the battle.

Nonverbal Toddler Ish Mom
We have to do many activities with Big A hand-over-hand, the ones at storytime are no exception

How do you guys deal with toddler meltdowns? I’d love any tips, please leave them in the comments below. Toddler can just be little assholes, can’t they? Let’s commiserate! Join the conversation, share this article, tag me on Instagram and show me your #toddlerfreakouts-let’s all feel a bit less alone, ok?

Story Time Important 3



Megan writes everything on Ish Mom. She possesses a bachelor's degree in psychology, a flair for theatrics, and a whole lotta nerve. She lives in the Midwest (and loves it) with her wonderful husband and three young boys.
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2 Responses

  1. My sense of humor has kept me from losing my cool more than once when my kiddo was a toddler & would have an epic meltdown. I can recall saying (yes, sometimes aloud), “I do not negotiate with terrorists” when I knew she was throwing a fit because I’d said no.

    Also, I think your suggestions are SPOT ON! Sticking to it, being willing to adapt & stay flexible–yet not give up–sets such a good, realistic expectation for our kids! Being around supportive people make a world of difference. You can’t imagine how much my best friend has helped me get through the past decade of parenting a difficult kiddo!

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