Welcome to part two of my four part series on Structured Learning. Today's focus is on visual schedules.
What is a Visual Schedule?A visual schedule communicates the sequence of upcoming activities or events through the use of objects, photographs, icons, words, or a combination of tangible supports. A visual schedule tells a student WHERE he/she should be and WHEN he/she should be there. Visual schedules are designed to match the individual needs of a student, and may vary in length and form.
Why do I Visual Schedules with Students with ASD?Visual schedules enhance receptive language and assist in providing meaning to students. Years of research has indicated that students with autism have a number of strengths, including visuospatial skills and sustained attention (Quill, 1997). Though students with ASD may have difficulty attending to and processing lengthy verbal requests, such as directives on where to go in the classroom or when an activity will begin, research has shown that students are able to attend to visual information more successfully (Garretson, Fein, & Waterhouse, 1990). If an adult provides verbal information on the upcoming sequence of events, students with ASD may have difficulty with the rapid comprehension required and the fleeting nature of verbal language. If a student forgets the information, there is no concrete system for the student to refer to. Visual schedules assist with comprehension, providing another channel for learning, and are easily accessible should a student need to be reminded of the day’s events.
Visual schedules also help students with ASD in becoming independent of adult prompts and cues (Mesibov, Shea, & Schopler, 2005). Teaching students with autism to follow visual schedules, rather than being moved around the classroom or through activities by staff members, increases the likelihood that students will become independent of adult delivered prompts. Recent research confirms that shifting from verbal prompts to visual prompts can increase student independence and engagement, as well as decrease the need for adult supports (Green, 2001). Though students may continue to rely on the visual stimulus to direct them to appropriate locations, it is not unlike me (or most of us) who need calendars to help stay organized and punctual.
Visual schedules are also an important tool in reducing anxiety in students with ASD, while teaching flexibility. Students with autism may feel anxious if the expectations are not understood or if predictable routines are not in place. A visual schedule provides a clear external structure for the school day, and may be physiologically calming for students. Though activities should vary throughout the day and week, the routine of using a visual schedule can provide safety and predictability. Classroom staff is responsible for varying the sequence of events regularly (i.e. math is first on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and reading is first on Tuesdays and Thursdays) while ensuring that the visual schedule is used consistently to provide information to students. Ultimately, the visual schedule can teach students that a change in the sequence of activities is acceptable because the routine of using the visual schedule is consistent and reliable.
How Do I Implement Visual Schedules?The first step in using visual schedules with students is to design the format of the schedule based on the individual needs of the student. Teachers may consider the comprehension level, attention span, sequencing abilities and other skills a student demonstrates. Division TEACCH identified five areas to consider when designing visual schedules for students (Cox & Boswell, 1999).
1. Form of representation: Consider what form of information would consistently be most meaningful to the student. Staff may determine that objects, photos, icon drawings, or words (or a combination of forms) are most easily understood by the student. For example, with a concrete learner, using Lego blocks to represent the play area may be most meaningful, while a photo of the play area may be appropriate for some students, and an icon representation of the play area may be meaningful for others.
2. Length of schedule and presentation format: After determining how the information will be represented, staff must consider how much information will be presented to the student at one time. Some students may be most successful with one piece of information visible at a time, while others are able to be successful with a short sequence of activities or up to a full day of information presented at a time. It is important to assess the student’s ability to sequence information, the anxiety level of the student (presenting too little or too much information may cause a student to worry), and the student’s ability to handle changes in the information presented (if a full day of information is presented it is more likely that unforeseeable changes will occur). Once length is determined, the classroom team must decide how to present the information to the student—1 piece at a time, in a left-to-right or top-to-bottom format, or using multiple rows of information.
4. Location of the schedule: When initially teaching a student how to use a schedule, staff may decide to bring the schedule information to the student. As students become familiar with the schedule, and understand where to go, schedules may be posted in a central location in the classroom, such as a table, shelf, wall, or desk. When it is time to transition, students can go to this central and neutral location (a “transition area”) to get their schedule information. Or, if students are independent in their schedule usage they may begin to carry a portable schedule with them from activity to activity. The visual schedule may be placed in a binder or on a clipboard that students move with them throughout the day.
What Do I Do Next?
Once a student has mastered independent usage of the visual schedule, staff can decide how to continue to improve the student’s skills. Staff may decide to change the form of the schedule from pictures to words if the student has become a fluent reader, or may decide to increase the length of the schedule from part-day to full-day. It is important for everyone to remember, however, that a more complex visual schedule is not necessarily “better”. The goal is independent usage, so the types and forms of schedules used may vary widely in one classroom.