Oh how I wish I had known about visual timetables when our children first arrived! Then, they were just a rather technical phrase for something used by therapists and social workers for non-verbal children on the autistic spectrum…surely not relevant to us? So we struggled on without them for years. I had no idea how useful they are for reducing anxiety, dealing with transitions, getting those tricky but essential tasks done, making sure you have time to spend 1:1 with your children, and just getting through those difficult days. The very first day I got out an enormous piece of paper and divided it into sections, one for each part of the day, and wrote down what we were doing that day, I realised what an essential tool they are and haven’t looked back since.
Here are some of the ideas we have learned from others and worked out through trial and error ourselves. The main thing to remember is to be flexible and adapt what you are doing to the individual needs of your family. If something works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, work out what is going wrong and change it.
A visual timetable is essentially any visual picture or representation of what is going to happen during the next period of time. They can be simply a year planner put up on the wall, or the day’s schedule written on a whiteboard, or they can be more interactive involving your loved one sticking pictures or words up to represent what is happening next. They can be zoomed in on the fine detail of what is happening just this morning, or zoomed out and look at an entire year of upcoming activities. It may be that a combination of different timetables works best for your family. Remember as well that young children cannot yet read or tell the time, so it is hard for them to know where they are in their day and what is happening next. When an adult suddenly announces: ‘right, time to get in the car, we are going out’, that can be very confusing and stressful. A visual timetable, even with pictures rather than words, can help small ones make sense of their day.
Here are some of the methods we have used. They may be right for your family or you may need to adapt them. Take them as starting points, springboards for your own creativity. We at CHOTS would love to hear what you have discovered works for your family, so that we can all learn together.
- A large whiteboard on the wall where your children can easily see it. This can be used to create a weekly timetable, or a daily one. You can use words or pictures, and different colours. I tend to divide the day into simply ‘morning, lunch, afternoon and tea’ columns. We have in the past tried to divide each day into hourly sections, and this might work for some. However this can be too rigid and not allow time or space for spontaneous events, and it is easy to get ‘behind time’.
You can start out by just writing it yourself, and then as your children get more confident and grow up, you can add in some choice and negotiation about what goes where and when. For instance you could have a section which says simply ‘free play time’, or if this is not something they can cope with, instead have ‘choose from any of these 5 activities’. You can also take account of changeable weather. For instance one section can say ‘playing at the park if sunny, or playing hide-and-seek in the house if rainy’. This avoids a last-minute disappointment and upset if it turns out that it is raining, because your child knows the alternative plan in advance.
A daily timetable like this allows you to schedule things that need to be done, such as chores, before things that are fun and more desirable. We have found that saying, for instance, “when your guinea pigs are cleared out, then after that you get your xbox time” is a more acceptable way of approaching things than saying “if you don’t clear out your guinea pigs, then you don’t get xbox time”. Then if someone really doesn’t want to do their essential chores, your response can simply be, ‘ok that’s fine it’s your choice…but we won’t have time for our shopping trip if it doesn’t get done by ‘x’ time”. This gives them choice but you control and avoids arguments.
If your children struggle with mealtimes and food, you can give them some choice on the ‘teatime’ section of the planner. Either ‘you can have meal x or meal y’, or let one child choose one day, and the other the next. Once it is written down everyone is clear.
- Pegs and Card. This is a more interactive approach for slightly older children. You write down tasks on clothes pegs, and peg them to a piece of card, or for pre-reading children use pictures or graphics instead. For example, for bedtime you might have ‘clothes off’, ‘PJs on’, ‘brush teeth’, ‘go to the toilet’, and ‘story time’. When each task has been done, the child moves the peg to another card which says ‘done – well done!’ This helps them keep on track and reduces the number of verbal instructions they have to process. You can add in or remove pegs according to what needs to be done, for instance they might only have a shower three times a week, or they might need to do a therapeutic activity twice a week. This is also very helpful if they are packing for a day out or a sleepover, or preparing for school in the morning. It helps them to feel in control of their day and to know they have done everything needed, especially if you have a busy household where there are other children too.
- Other systems. There are plenty of other ways of creating visual timetables – the only limit is your imagination. How about velcro stickers stuck up above the school bag peg for reminders about what needs to go into the school bag on which day? Or mealtime nutrition planners, with velcro stickers for each category of food eaten today? Or a ‘getting dressed’ planner, with different stickers for each item of clothing to help with getting clothes on in the right order. The last sticker could say ‘big hug from Mummy’ as a lovely relational reward for finishing dressing.
- Generally speaking, the younger your child or loved one, the more ‘zoomed in’ and simple your visual timetable needs to be. For young toddlers, saying ‘now we are doing x, next we are doing y’ is probably enough. For very young children, probably one day at a time rather than a week, and graphics rather than words will work. As your child gets older, they will gradually need more time all at once, e.g. one week rather than a day, words rather than graphics, and more choice and interaction. When and at what pace that happens will be unique to your child or loved one, and their stage of development (which might not match their chronological age).
- What happens if there are last minute changes? We have all been there…the play date doesn’t happen at the last minute because someone is ill, or the car breaks down etc etc. Here, the visual timetable can really help. You can all go and look at it together, and work out what has gone wrong. Then you can make a new plan for the day together, rewriting the whiteboard or swapping your graphics around, as necessary.
- What do you do if your child or loved one just isn’t visual and doesn’t engage with visual prompts? In this case, record what you would have written down on an audio file. Put this on a device like an ipod nano – something simple and tiny that can be carried around. This way, your child can listen to it whenever they need a reminder of what they are doing next.
Remember that these are ideas, starting points – they may or may not work for your family. If they do, great. If not, try adapting them or going back to your child’s sensory thumbprint to work out how to change things. Use this article as a springboard for your own imagination.
Please do let us know how you get on during the Wednesday Q&A sessions.