As I began researching the benefits of visual schedules, it really made sense. Adults love things that help them keep track of their lives, from planners to smartphones. As a child, and especially a young child, you have so little understanding, control, or influence over what is happening in your life. There are usually anchor points in any given day (meal times, nap/bedtime), but in the middle you are often unaware of what will be coming next or when you will be changing activities. Once you add challenges in the areas of processing language, processing sensory input, understanding subtle social cues, mitigating anxiety, and/or inhibiting impulsivity – that’s the perfect storm. And that’s where a visual schedule can really come in handy.
When you say something to a child who has ADHD, they may be unable to truly listen. While speaking to a child with an auditory sensory vulnerability, they might be trying to block out all sounds including your requests. For a child trying to decode what’s expected from them in an unfamiliar context, they might not be able to focus on directions. Meanwhile, a child dealing with anxiety may be in fight, flight, or freeze mode, which transfers most of the function away from the logical parts of their brain that understand your instructions. For these children, something as simple as taking language out of the equation makes it easier for them to process the information.
There are all types of visual schedules. Some might map out the course of an entire day, while others might have a very limited “first _____, then _____” structure. On an even smaller scale, there may be step-by-step instructions for what some might consider a single activity, like asking a friend to play. A child might benefit from any of these types, or several. It really depends upon knowing the child.
As a bonus, many of these schedules can actually teach a breadth of skills that are also useful to typically developing children. They help children understand sequences (help a parent put the laundry in the washer before the dryer), time management (not having time to do an activity before lunch), and organization (thinking ahead to what might help them through the course of a day, like packing a snack if they’ll be kept out of the house past their usual supper time).
Visual schedules are also excellent for fostering independence. A student who has a visual schedule doesn’t have to rely on a parent or teacher for answers about what to expect. They can check it on their own accord, as frequently as they like, without causing disruptions to themselves or others. As a result of knowing what will be coming next, the child is better mentally prepared and therefore less reliant on adult help through transitions that might have challenged them in the past.
Impulsive children are also able to delay gratification when they understand that first one or more less desirable tasks need to be completed, but then the preferred activity can happen. For example, a child who wants to play outside will be more likely to cooperate with an indoor activity if they know that outside time is coming up on their schedule.
When a child begins to wander from the current activity or becomes resistant to what is coming next, there’s a readily available reminder that doesn’t feel like scolding. A parent or teacher only has to say “what are we supposed to be doing right now?” As a result, there is less tension on important relationships and less opportunity for power struggle.
The visual schedule isn’t a “magic bullet” for sure, but it can have a very positive overall impact. If you’re considering implementing one, really think about what your needs are and what the needs of the child are. If at all reasonable, ask the child to help you make it because it will increase their investment in it. Finally, be sure to use it consistently for a period of time before deciding that it isn’t working for you – it took about a week for me to start seeing definite, reliable improvements after adding ours.
For a really excellent justification for the use of visual schedules which comes from a respectable source, check out 30 Reasons to Use and to Keep Using a Visual Schedule. Though the linked PDF and its source organization focus on autism spectrum disorders, there is a lot of good information that can be generalized to a variety of disorders that arise from non-typical neurological function like sensory processing disorder, ADHD, and anxiety.
If you want to see how I put this into action, check out Edmund’s Visual Schedule. Kristine will be posting her own version soon as well, which is very different from mine but works great for her family!