What is a Visual Schedule?
A visual schedule is a graphic representation of images and symbols that communicates scheduled tasks and activities. They come in a variety of formats: from physical visual schedules mounted on walls, to electronic visual schedules on your smartphone and/or tablet. Many downloadable apps, such as “Choiceworks”, are interactive and have added benefits such as:
- Checking off completed tasks
- Easily editing order or replacement of tasks
- Notifications of tasks by alarm
- Visual countdown timers to keep on track
- Spoken texts for those who have difficulty with reading
Why should we use them?
- Predictability and Clarity
Many children, especially children with ASD, feel stress with unpredictable changes and, consequently, feel unsafe. When children feel unsafe and do not know how to express themselves, it can lead to acting out behaviors. Visual schedules provide a constant visual reminder of what they are doing, and what they will be doing, which eases anxiety. A visual schedule cues a child to emotionally prepare for upcoming tasks and activities.
- Turns Abstract to Concrete
Visual schedules help convert abstract concepts, such as time and organization, into concrete concepts. Some children, especially children with ASD, readily comprehend information visually, as opposed to auditorily. Having a visual representation of these abstract concepts enhances overall comprehension of day-to-day activities, as well as sequencing.
With consistent use of visual schedules, children become familiar with the purpose of visual schedules. Eventually, as children grow older, they can use them independently, and learn important skills such as planning, time management, and organization.
According to the National Professional Development Center on ASD, a visual schedule increases: engagement, social interaction, play skill development, and on-task behavior, both in the home and school settings. Additionally, it reduces transitioning time between activities (Hume, 2008).
How to implement a visual schedule
- In order for a visual schedule to be effective, make sure you understand your child’s visual stage, as children understand and communicate at distinct symbolic levels:
- Object Stage → use of actual objects
- Photograph Stage → use of photographs of objects
- Picture Symbolic Stage → use of colored line drawings
- Line Drawing Stage → use of black and white line drawings
- Text Stage → use of written words or numbers
- Start off with ~2 sequences of activities, as we don’t want a child to feel overwhelmed by the sequence of events. If a child is overwhelmed, he/she will feel frustration, rather than independence.
- Intertwine non-preferred activities, with preferred activities. A child will feel more motivated completing a non-preferred activity, when he/she sees that a preferred activity is coming up next.
- Provide visual and verbal reminders when a scheduled activity will occur and when it will terminate. Verbal and visual reminders are especially important in the beginning.
- Make sure to include a way to show the child that he/she has completed the activity. One may choose to include an “all done” box or a checkmark box at the end of each step. A visual representation of completion will increase reinforcement, as well as a sense of accomplishment.
- Pair the visual schedule with a reward. Whether that be a treat, or verbal praise, it is essential for a child to feel validated for his/her efforts.
How to handle challenging behaviors with the visual schedule
Although visual schedules sound like the perfect solution to encourage children to complete tasks, there will be resistance to maintaining visual schedules. Below are some tips to increase functionality of visual schedules:
- Visual Timer: A visual timer will serve as another reminder, an auditory reminder, to help children understand when to transition to the next task. The more reminders the better, as sudden changes are what cause anxiety for many children.
- “First…Then” Strategy: If a child is demonstrating challenging behaviors, it’s okay to rearrange the visual schedule with the preferred activity as the reward. The “first… then” strategy is the idea that: “first I do something (task demand), then I get something (preferred object/activity)”, and it is definitely recommended to include it. With time and consistency, this strategy teaches compliance, as a child will learn that rewards are available when he/she follows directions.
- Positive Reinforcement: When a child does follow instructions, make sure to provide a lot of positive reinforcement (e.g., clapping) and specific verbal praise (e.g., “I love how you followed instructions!”). The more positivity the child feels when following directions, the more likely he/she will continue the pattern of following the visual schedule.
In short, when a child displays difficulties attending to activities, transitioning between activities, and completing activities, using a visual schedule is definitely worth a try. Even for a typically developing child who may readily follow directions, the added visual information may increase productivity and organization. After all, many adults also use visual schedules in their day-to-day lives, such as calendars or agendas, to help them feel organized. Children need that too!
As speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists at Exceptional Speech Therapy, we often utilize visual schedules with patients, and we see the difference! One of our speech-language pathologists, Maria Dreseris M.S. CF-SLP, notes: “I’ve seen a lot of improvements using visual schedules because it gives my patients a sense of security. It definitely promotes a safe learning environment because the patients aren’t caught off guard. They know what to expect, which gives them more control of their sessions. It helps them focus more on their language skills, without worrying about ambiguity.” Please don’t hesitate to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org if you need any assistance creating an individualized visual schedule for your child.