The Visual Schedule

Lots of special needs kids do well with visual schedules. What is a visual schedule? It is basically a timeline of the day (or part of it) that they can see/read. In the preschool classroom, the schedules are elaborate—made of laminated paper with clip-art pictures that the kids can velcro on/off as they complete the corresponding activity. There is a picture for bathroom, snack time, circle time, etc. In the home, the visual schedule might be simpler—just a piece of paper you tape up with draw-on pictures that your kids can consult when they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing/what order to do it.

Visual schedules are often recommended for special needs kids. If they have trouble with language, emotions, social awareness, distraction, or other things, a visual plan can help them to adjust to life because they can see what’s coming next. Imagine for a moment that you’re a two or three year old, struggling with life and comprehension, and unable to do or think through what you’re supposed to do for yourself. You would feel pretty overwhelmed! You might even feel insecure because you’re at the mercy of adults and the environment around you, dependent on something or someone to notice when you are bored, sad, wet, or confused. You’d feel like at any time, something new might come out of nowhere or something different might be demanded of you, with no rhyme or reason to it. Especially things that are hard for you like using the bathroom, language therapy, or quiet time. You’d cry or resist a lot, I bet.

This is how lots of special needs children feel. They struggle with transitions—the recognition of needing to switch from one activity to another. Visual schedules help by showing children that there is an order and structure to their day; things are done with a certain reason and purpose, in a logical and predictable order. Not that the schedule never changes but they can see any changes so they feel more secure. They can see what activity comes next (and thus show less resistance), and they can actively take part in getting ready for it (cleaning up, emotional preparation, etc.). They get a little bit of control back in their life, which is important at the toddler/preschool age.

Not to mention that you as the caregiver feel better because you have a plan. You can see what you did/didn’t do, as well as keep rolling throughout the day.

In our house, we employed visual schedules for awhile, when our children were in the preverbal stage. It helped give our home more structure (i.e. what do you DO with three toddlers all day?) as well as helped them understand concepts of future/past. We could work on their ability to tell them what they did and what was still ahead, and we could make sure that we were putting in time in different developmental areas that we wanted to work on each day.

When the kids were more verbal, we still found use with the visual schedule except that we sublimated it to describe steps or sequences they were having trouble with independently… toileting and chores especially. When the child can SEE go to the toilet, wipe, flush, wash hands, put seat down, turn off light… they are much more likely to encode and follow-through independently. We don’t have to nag, “Did you turn off the light?” every time. When the child can SEE clean upstairs, clean downstairs, put on pajamas, brush teeth, go to the bathroom, get in the bed… they are much more likely to go through bedtime without chaos and whining. We don’t have to say, “Are you ready for bed now?” They either are or they aren’t. And we aren’t the meanies for wanting them to go to bed; the visual chart takes that authority away from us at least enough to diffuse rebellion.

So if structure or transitions are causing trouble in your household, consider adopting some visuals. Pictures plus direction that is external to yourself can help kids deal with things they normally wouldn’t very well. Plus, it keeps you sane and healthy. When you don’t need it anymore, that’s great. But it may be just what you need for a little support in your well-oiled machine of a home =)


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