Visual scheduling is a systematic technique that enhances learning and communication for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These types of visual support systems provide teachers and parents with the tools needed to help children reach development goals and achieve success in life.
What is a Visual Schedule?
A visual schedule is a graphic representation of scheduled tasks and activities. They are very useful for breaking down tasks that have multiple steps and ensuring that children follow rules and deadlines. Visual schedules reduce anxiety by providing consistency while also reducing resistance that comes with certain activities. Although most people associate visual schedules with pictures or photographs, events can be triggered through toys, objects and even word phrases. The visual schedule itself is a constant reminder to students where they should be, what they should be doing and when she should start and finish.
Implementing a Visual Schedule
There are some important considerations when implementing visual schedules:
• To be effective, teachers and parents should first ensure that the child understands the concept of sequenced activities. Visual schedules are often taught through pictures, photos, and role play.
• The schedule needs to be manageable. When students are overwhelmed by the sequence of events they may give up. You want to teach them how to be successful and independent not overly frustrated. When you see a child struggling, you can break the schedule up into chunks to make it easier to follow.
• Most educators prefer to mix preferred activities with non-preferred ones. This helps to motivate children to persevere through non-preferred activities. For example, a good primary intervention is a first-then board, in which students are taught that they will be able to do an activity they enjoy if they first perform a behavior that they don’t like as much.
• Personalize the schedule. The more the child can relate to the visual cues the more likely that they will understand them. For example, including photos of the individual student successfully completing the steps of the process will facilitate learning and improve self-efficacy.
• Physical reminders are usually posted on walls, but they can also be portable through a binder or clipboard. Regardless of the locations, the child should be able to see the reminders to stay on track during the day.
• When it is time for a scheduled activity to occur, children are cued with a brief verbal reminder and if necessary, physically guided to the posted visual schedule.
• Prompts are given when necessary. Either a verbal or non-verbal prompt can be provided if the student does not respond to the initial cue. Ideally, prompts are phased out as the student learns.
• Everyone likes to cross items off their list. It is important to give students a way to show that they have successfully completed an activity. For example, include a “done” checkbox at the end of each step. It will provide a sense of accomplishment and reinforce their efforts.
• Speaking of reinforcement, visual schedules need to be accompanied by some form of reward, especially when a student can complete a task independently. This can take the form of verbal praise, a treat, or a fun activity.
Dealing with Challenging Behaviors
There will inevitably be resistance against maintaining the schedule. When challenging behaviors occur, teachers focus on completing the task at hand. If the difficult behaviors continue, teachers may rearrange the schedule with a preferred activity as the reward for task completion. For important tasks that will create challenges, teachers often give a visual schedule reminder during a preferred task. Praise and positive reinforcement for following the schedule, completing tasks and successfully transitioning to other activities are very helpful. Some teachers find it is helpful to use a timer to help children stay focused and transition to new tasks.
How Teachers Organize Visual Schedules
When it comes to visual schedules, teachers creatively use everything from color coding to school bell synchronization. In order to maximize effectiveness, teachers individually organize visual schedules based on the learner’s preferences and personality. Every morning, the teacher will arrange the student’s daily schedule and associated learning materials before the student’s arrival. This may require them to verify if objects are gathered in task baskets or in handy aprons that special education teachers wear. It may be appropriate to empower older students to control and enforce their own schedules. For developmentally delayed students, it may be appropriate to physically coach and guide the student through the entire process.
Benefits of Visual Schedules
There are several reasons why visual schedules are both popular and helpful:
Structure and Predictability
Visual schedules provide structured predictability. Students with autism must know what is coming next so they can emotionally prepare for the upcoming activity. This presents the student with expectations that they can then manage, helping to ease transition periods. In general, the fewer surprises the better; unexpected events are usually unwelcome and may lead to acting out behavior. The predictability of a schedule provides a sense of security and eases anxiety.
Visual schedules can be used to teach a daily routine as well as skills to perform a specific activity. For example, a teacher may post the day’s schedule on a wall or provide pictures that describe steps on how to go to the bathroom. Giving step-by-step visual cues appears to be an effective way for most autistic kids to learn and helps keep them on task. Visual schedules can be created for almost any set of skills, including social interactions, routines, academics, and daily living.
Turns Abstract Into Concrete
The processing of abstract principles is difficult for any person but is more so for the autistic child. Visuals schedules help students understand abstract concepts including time and organization. Abstract ideas are transformed into tangible objects through visual cues. Turning an abstract concept into something accessible and concrete is crucial to enhance understanding.
The ultimate goal when working with autistic children is independent functioning. Visual schedules provide an opportunity for students to learn with minimal outside intervention. Besides mastering specific skills, students acquire the ability to organize, make decisions, and employ time management, all crucial abilities for independence. Eventually, they may be able to create and follow their own schedules, indicating their progress toward being more self-sufficient.
ABA Programs Guide Staff
Updated May 2020
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