Visual Schedules: Creating Structure Amid Chaos
Throughout my career supporting students with Autism, I have spent a great deal of time in Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) classrooms. The active learning in these rooms is nothing short of kinetic. Four-year-olds respond loudly, learn busily, and play frenetically. Often, the students I supported were either withdrawn and wide-eyed or exhibiting undesired and challenging behaviors. Transitions between activities regularly provoked meltdowns that were difficult to calm. Students struggled to maintain attention and often wandered away from their classroom tasks. For many students with autism, differences in executive functioning made most days feel chaotic…until we implemented VISUAL SCHEDULES!
Executive functions are self-regulating skills that help you to manage yourself. Deficits in executive functioning affect memory, planning, social cognition, emotion regulation, and other areas of self-monitoring. Learners with autism often struggle to start and complete less desired tasks. On the flipside, it is equally, if not more challenging, to transition from a task of high interest. These behaviors in the classroom may be perceived as “work avoidance,” instead of a need for environmental structure. Since data shows that learners with autism benefit from visual supports, teaching the use of a visual schedule creates a framework to delineate the day’s activities.
Visual calendars are for everyone. I would be lost without the visual reminders from my calendar to help me meet timelines. Currently, I am working from home in response to Covid-19, and my calendar has never been more important. It notifies me of upcoming Zoom meetings and prepares me for any “undesirable tasks” of my own. Without it, I would be lost and ineffective.
So, where do you begin? Like all good interventions, it should be individualized to the learner’s specific needs. Will a classroom size visual schedule work best or should it be posted on the learner’s desk? Would a traveling schedule notebook be more effective for students who transition to different classes? Designing a schedule that incorporates your learner’s area of interest will support interest and buy-in. This antecedent-based strategy reinforces the learner’s ownership of the schedule.
Visual schedules come in many forms to meet various needs. They often include images that can be physically removed as each task is completed, but also can include checkboxes to be ticked when the work is done. Icons, real-world images, or objects can be used to represent different activities. While some learners may benefit from an overview of the week, others may become overwhelmed seeing more than a few hours at a time. A visual schedule can be used to break down a challenging activity during the day. These mini-schedules combine visuals and task analysis to navigate the learner. An example of a mini-schedule can be found on the Autism Circuit Toolkit.
As with all interventions, it should not be assumed visual schedules will “work” without first being taught through routine. Learners should be reminded to check their schedule at each transition. Each successful interaction with the schedule should be highly reinforced until checking the schedule becomes rote.
Currently, many students are being educated at home. For learners with autism, this surprise change of environment can cause unease. Structuring the home day with a visual schedule is one way to alleviate the anxiety of the unknown. It is also a great way for parents to include routine chores, as well as prepare for upcoming events and appointments. Interventions that are utilized in both school and home become generalized faster. Knowing what is coming next can often diminish harmful behaviors caused by anxiety. Visual schedules are useful across environments to prepare individuals, foster independence, and support on-task learner success.
Have you used visual schedules in your classroom or home? I would love to hear about your successes and challenges! EMAIL ME! Want to learn more about the use of Visuals, Task Analysis, Antecedent-Based Interventions, and other evidence-based practices? Visit the interventions section of TARGET!
AFIRM Team. (2015). Visual Supports. Chapel Hill, NC: National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder, FPG Child Development Center, University of North Carolina. Retrieved from https://afirm.fpg.unc.edu/visual-supports
MacDonald, L., Trembath, D., Ashburner, J., Costley, D., & Keen, D. (2018, January 15). The use of visual schedules and work systems to increase the on-task behaviour of students on the autism spectrum in mainstream classes. Journal of Research in Special Education Needs. https://doi.org/10.1111/1471-3802.12409
Region 13. (n.d.). Mini Schedule. Autism Circuit Toolkit. http://www.autismcircuit.net/tool/mini-schedule
*Blaine Campbell, M. Ed., is an Autism Education Specialist and virtual coach for the Texas Statewide Leadership for Autism Training (TSLAT) at Region 13. He has provided clinic-based ABA instruction, and has been a private social skills instructor, paraprofessional, resource teacher, behavior support teacher, and district Autism specialist. Having taught across Texas for almost 20 years, in both urban and rural districts, Blaine has provided direct support for learners with Autism from 6 months through 19 years in inclusive and self-contained settings. Blaine serves as coach and cheerleader for educators completing the intensive training of the Autism Circuit statewide cohort.