Visual Schedules - For Pandemics And Beyond

I’ve been indoors for a week now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and from tomorrow children across the country will also be at home as most of the schools have closed.

One of the first things I did for myself when I knew I was going to be spending a lot of time at home was make a schedule to help give my day a routine and to make sure that I still ate and rested at sensible times.

A digital hand drawn schedule on a sky blue background. Running vertically down the left is different time slots. Down the centre of the image brightly coloured shapes are stacked on top of each other symbolising a different time period. They have white writing on each of them which reads: Wake up, wash, breakfast, morning session, 1hr free time, lunch, nap afternoon session, 1hr free time, dinner, evening session, bath and finally bed.

Having this schedule helped me feel calm and focus on the tasks I wanted to complete. It was also useful for letting those around me know what I was planning to do.

Pretty much all of us use some sort of tool to organise our time so we know what to expect. That could be a diary, a wall planner or our phones. But this isn’t something we’re born doing – they’re skills we need to develop.

It can be easy for adults to forget how it feels not to know what’s about to happen, and when. Also, we sometimes expect children and young people to remember what’s going to be happening even if we’ve only told them about it once. For me, having things written down in a place where I can refer to them is essential – I check the calendar on my phone several times a day.

Many children and young people only know what to expect next because their lives follow a routine, but we’re living through a time when everyone’s routine is changing and there’s a great deal of uncertainty, and I imagine this is making some children feel quite anxious.

I used to work in a behaviour support team and made lots of visual resources for children and young people. These were to help them feel less anxious, to build communication skills and to provide opportunities for children and adults to talk about what they were doing and how they were using their time together.

At the end of last week my friend Laura got in touch to ask if I would make visual schedules for her children to help them plan their time when they were doing schoolwork at home. My niece Bean already has a calendar which she loves and uses a lot.

I’m sharing information about three visual resources I made this week in case they’re useful for other families. Different children will need different types of tool, so just use what works for your family. I’ll describe each resource briefly, share a photo of an example, and give some simple tips for how to use them. There’s no right or wrong way with any of this, though, so it’s all about trying stuff out to see what works.

My Week

Two a photograph of two laminated cardboard calendars. They are A3 and landscape in orientation. They are similar to each other the front one is mainly green and the back one is mainly purple. They each have eight columns running vertically the one on the far left has an image and word describing different times of day: Morning, Lunch, Afternoon, Dinner, Evening, Bedtime. The other seven columns each have a day of the week at the top and then a strip of Velcro for children to put activity symbols. Either ones they make themselves, wipe clean activity cards or pre-drawn activity cards - these have velcro on the back and can be moved around the calendar.

This schedule gives children an overview of the whole week. It helps establish patterns and reminds them about any regular activities that happen on a particular day. It’s also useful for planning ahead and letting them know in advance about anything that’s on the horizon – for example an event or a dental appointment. It provides opportunities to talk about what’s coming up and provides something children can refer back to. Children don’t have to have a good understanding of time or the days of the week to start using this type of schedule, but they do need to have some understanding that days come in a sequence.

How to Use – Key Points:
It’s a flexible tool but here are a few pointers on how you might use these:

• Make a time each week to plan ahead together. Go through each day and put the symbols onto the Velcro. Let your child choose some things and make time to talk about their suggestions where possible.
• If you know what your child has suggested isn’t going to work, say so and try to find another time for it, or suggest something yourself that is possible. If they get bored or wander off, don’t worry – it’s important that they don’t come to hate it – just complete it for them and look at it briefly together when it’s complete.
• Make sure the calendar’s somewhere where you can all see it easily. If you have a wall chart or family planner keep it with that – if not, find somewhere prominent and easily accessible.
• You don’t have to put everything on it – key activities are fine. If something’s coming up that you don’t have a symbol for, use some of the blank ones or make your own. Some children prefer drawn images, others like photos – do what works for you and your child.
• If the plans need to change, that’s totally fine: try and involve your child in making the change.
• Give it time – children may take a little while to feel its benefit but keep going and be as consistent as you can. Diaries are only useful if we trust them and that’s something your child will need to learn.

My Day

A laminated, A3 visual schedule made of cardboard, this is portrait in orientation and is for one day. It has four columns, on the left is the time column that has the day broken into manageable chunks: breakfast, morning, lunch, afternoon, dinner, evening. At the top of the second column  it says Today and there is a velcro strip running vertically underneath on which activity cards can be placed. On the right of that is a done column with a tick so a child can tick off tasks that have been achieved. The column furthest on the right says 'my stars' and has velcro spaces that reward stars can be place.

This tool is helpful for children who get overwhelmed by information and need to focus on one day at a time. There’s space for a child to tick off activities once they’re complete. It’s the visual equivalent of a ‘to do list’ that an adult might have. It helps break the day down into chunks and relates time to key activities and markers in the day, like mealtimes. This should help a child to understand where they are in the day more easily and to understand what to expect.

How to Use – Key Points:

• Involve your child in planning their day and make sure there’s a mix of activities. Encourage them to use their schedule to let you know what they’d like to do.
• Keep information simple, particularly at the beginning. You can add more detail as your child grows more confident in using the schedule.
• If there are things that are hard or not enjoyable for your child, for example homework or brushing their teeth, put something you know they’ll enjoy next, and show them this on the planner.
• Do refer back to it throughout the day, setting an example of how to use it.

Now, Next and Then

A small portable, A5 laminated board that is landscape in origination. At the top it says 'I'm working on' under this are three columns titled: Now, Next and Then - each has a velcro dot under it for an activity card to be placed. This resource helps breaks days or tasks into chunks.

Tasks can sometimes seem big and overwhelming and it can be hard to sequence them and stay on track. Now, Next and Then is a portable system that can be used by anyone looking after your child. This breaks down time or tasks into manageable chunks and means that enjoyable activities can be used to help get through less fun tasks. We all do this in our heads – I’ll do the washing then I’ll have a cup of tea. This is a way of helping your child stay focused and complete tasks. You can also use now, next and then to break down elements of the same task.

How to Use – Key Points:

• Introduce them to their mini planner and explain that it’s to help you agree what’s happening when.
• Put the activities that they must do first and let them choose the ‘and then’ where possible. This could mean giving them a limited choice between Activity A, or Activity B.
• It won’t always be possible for the ‘then’ to be fun, in which case make sure there’s something nice in the mix.
• If they’re going off track remind them to check their mini planner for what they’re working on.
• When they complete tasks praise them and get them to take the symbols off the board as they are completed.
• The degree to which you break down tasks is very much up to you and what you think your child needs.

Schedules can come in many different forms and I’d love to hear what does and doesn’t work for you.

Making resources like this can take time and that’s not possible for everyone. I have a couple of spare schedules, so get in touch if it’s something you’d like to try. I’ve also seen wipe boards and post-it notes used effectively for schedules.

Two basic principles are that the schedule should reflect your child’s age and interests, and that it’s their tool, not yours.

Good luck.

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