First – Then

First – Then

What is it?

First-Then is a strategy to communicate the transition from one activity to another. It is used to communicate the sequence of events to your child, and encourage a new less preferred activity followed by a reward, building up to a string of activities for communicating transition and or schedules.

First-Next is the foundation for the move to daily schedules.

How To Use It?

  1. Download the First-Then card (see bottom of page for PDF download)
  2. Choose a activity and a reward that your child cannot resist
  3. Take photos of the activity you are looking to carry out with your child, or alternatively search the Internet to download free images for the activity you are looking to use. 
  4. Laminating the images will ensure they last for ages, and adding some Velcro to the back to easily attach to the First-Then card. If you do not have any of these, Blue-Tack will work just fine.
  5. Place the two pictures on the First-Then card and have the activity and reward ready for your child
  6. Show your child the First-Then card, point to the two pictures, and say “First (Activity 1), then (Activity 2)”
  7. If your child resists, remain calm and acknowledge that this will take time
  8. Persevere and continue to remain consistent, pointing to each picture and repeating the phrase
  9. If you are not succeeding, use the physical objects to support the pictures.
  10. When the first activity is done, show your child the First-Then card again and say “(Activity 1) finished!” while pointing at the first picture on the card. Then point to the second activity and say “Now, (Activity 2).” The activity may be only for a few seconds. What is important is that it is done first before the next activity. Building up the time spent on the activity will happen over time with continued use of the strategy.
  11. Give the reward immediately with loads of praise and excitement.


  • Always have a reward at the end of the activity, something they will not say no to, e.g. bubbles or even chocolate!
  • The first activity only needs to be done for a few seconds initially, before the reward is given. It is important for your child to do the activity, not how long they do it for. Time spent can be built up on later.
  • Add the physical objects into the strategy alongside the picture if needed 
  • Use traffic Lights as a support (three pieces of cardboard, green representing ‘Go’ or start of the activity, amber/yellow representing the activity nearing completion and red signifying the end of the activity.

Taking it Forward

Build up the number of activities and hence transitions when your child is ready. Continued use will build up the time your child spends on the activity.

Use First-Then as a schedule for communicating with pictures about where you are going, e.g. First Car, Then Shop, Then Park.

You can create your own version of the First-Then card and integrate the traffic light system. Take a piece of red cardboard and a piece of green cardboard. Cut lengthwise and laminate next to each other, forming an A4 piece of card, the left hand side red and right hand side green. Cut horizontally the green section into three – these will become flaps, fold the card half vertically like the image below.

Place your three images on the three green flaps, as you finish each activity, state “all finished” and pull down the flap (displaying the red underneath). You can fold the card up and slip it into your back pocket for communicating ‘on the go’.

Going Digital

If you get tired of constantly printing out pictures, laminating them and carrying them around in a little bag or pouch – go digital!

The apps I recommend are below. There is one for Apple and another for Andriod users. These apps allow you to instantly download images from a Google image search, or a photo you take in that instant. You can save pictures and schedules for use later, and always have your picture communication at your fingertips.

There is a charge for these apps, but they will save loads of time, and allow you to have the strategy in your hand instantly, with the image you need.

Apple Store: First Then Schedule:

Google Play: What’s Next App:

Read about this strategy in action in Writing for Chocolate.

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