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How to use traffic lights

Traffic Lights help you:

  • Say what you mean
  • Show what you mean

You will need

  • Traffic lights cards on an extendible key ring, attached to your clothing
  • objects that match your words, in familiar meaningful situations

Say what you mean

  1. "dinner's  nearly finished"
  2. "dinner is finished"
  3. "pudding is starting"

Show what you mean

Put the relevant circle: yellow, red or green, on an object which matches your words.

  • Say: "drink nearly finished"; show: yellow on cup

Choose your moment, show yellow at the point where the child shows nonverbal signs of being bored of drinking or when their cup is nearly empty)

  • Say: "drink finished"; show: red on cup, take cup away/ help child put cup down
  • Say: "tidy up starting"; show:  green on tray, help child to put cup on tray

Using pictures (2d images)

You will need

  • Traffic lights cards, (on extendible key ring, attached to adult)
  • Adult’s voice, a vocabulary of pictures, easily available to you, but out of reach of the child (I call these the adult voice, because they represent your words)
  • Now board: magnetic or Velcro board, which can be taken to the child
  • Finished box: a lightweight, non-transparent box/ bucket for posting pictures in


Choose pictures which represent very familiar activities/ events, the first ones you will want are things you can't easily touch e.g. outside, or represent with an object, e.g. walking

  1. Green on the picture of outside, stick it on the now board, say "outside starting"
  2. Prepare to go outside, e.g. put on shoes and coat, whilst saying outside starting and putting the green traffic light on the picture on the now board, as required
  3. Go outside, saying and showing "outside starting"
  4. Yellow  on symbol, say "outside nearly finished" as you get ready to come in
  5. Red on symbol, say "outside finished", as you come in, and help the child to post the outside picture in the finished box.

How and why do traffic lights work?

Traffic lights enable children to understand that what you say is what you mean.

  • They help the adult speak clearly, simply & predictably.
  • They show the child that your words are relevant to your shared focus of attention.

When are they helpful?

Every time you want the child to do what you say. Don't only use them in emotive situations. You don't want the child to associate them with not being allowed to do what they want.

Traffic lights show nice things starting as well as nice things stopping.

How long do I wait between the colours?

There is not an exact time. The principle is what you say and show is what is happening. Don't leave time for confusion to grow in.

The pace you go depends on you, the child and the activity.

The child and you need to share a focus, so the most important factor is how long the child can look and concentrate for.

If you leave it too long, the child won't understand what nearly finished means.

Green "starting" follows on immediately from red "finished".

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