How to use a visual schedule to support change and transition
Visual schedules and other visual supports like timers or transition strips are often used with children with autism spectrum disorder or ADHD to support difficulties they have with change, transition, and task completion. Some children do not manage well when they have to stop one task and move on to another, or when there is a change in their daily routine, such as going on a fieldtrip at school. Other children are easily overwhelmed by a larger task and benefit having the activity broken down into smaller steps.
Using a visual schedule helps create structure in your child’s day and it helps clarify expectations. Visual schedules provide a visual aid to help your child navigate a change, which decreases your child’s reliance on verbal prompts. Overtime, this helps build your child’s flexibility and independence.
Visual schedules and supports are effective for children with delayed receptive language (e.g., understanding of language), or those who struggle attending to and processing auditory information (i.e., oral language). Some children become anxious or act out when demands are placed on them and they do not understand what is being asked. It is common for parents and educators to see a decrease in behavioural concerns when visuals are used to support their child.
Many families find it helpful to work with a behaviour consultant at home or a special education teacher at school to develop visual supports. When developing a visual schedule:
- First, identify what it is specifically that you would like your child to achieve.
- Assess what your child is and is not able to do based on the specific goal. This is important to ensure the expectations being placed on your child are appropriate based on your child’s cognitive abilities, adaptive functioning, academic skills, and developmental level. Clarifying what your child is and is not already able to do will help determine the amount of support needed initially. In other words, determine what steps are missing or what skills your child is missing that are preventing your child from achieving the goal.
- Next, determine what level of visual abstraction is best for the child based on their abilities and developmental level. Can the child recognize pictures, or does the child need real objects? If your child can interpret and respond to pictures, how abstract can these be? Does your child need photos of the actual objects, or can your child respond to an illustration?
- Then, determine how much information should be provided on your child’s visual schedule. Will your child do best with 2 or 3 activities or steps, or does the activity need to be broken down further? Finding the optimal level of support will help reduce your child’s frustration and it will lead to greater success and independence overtime.
- Finally, determine where the visual schedule should be located and who is going to teach and implement the schedule. As the schedule is implemented, it is important to monitor if the approach is working, and to modify the schedule or approach as needed. It is also important that there is consistency in approaches used across environments and across caregivers. Using the schedule consistently will establish a routine for your child and create predictability.
When Using the Schedule
- Bring the schedule to your child (i.e., visual cue)
- When your child is looking at the schedule, prompt your child to use their schedule
- Use simple words and as few words as possible when prompting
- Provide assistance with the task as needed, and slowly fade support and prompts as your child is able to complete the task and use the schedule independently
- Less preferred tasks may need to be sandwiched in between preferred activities (e.g., First-Then schedule).
- It’s important to not remove the visual support when your child starts experiencing success, however it can be modified and simplified overtime.
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