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The Right Way to Use Visual Timetables

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Anyone who has ever worked in a specialist setting or with children with special educational needs will have undoubtedly used a visual timetable. It is a strategy on most EHCP's and often highly recommended for autistic pupils but nearly every child will benefit from having a visual timetable in the classroom. You might have a visual timetable on your classroom wall. You might remember to put up the schedule for the day, every day, and even to take off each picture as you finish each activity. You might be remembering to do this for a child’s individual visual timetable. Well done if you have. However, if you haven’t had them explained to you properly, it can easily seem as a lot of work for little reason…

Why Do Children Need a Visual Timetable?

Children with SEND, particularly those who are autistic, often have difficulties;

  • Focusing their attention throughout the day

  • Understanding their daily routine

  • Transitioning successfully and independently from one activity to another

  • Remaining calm when they finish a preferred or enjoyable activity

  • Remaining calm when they want to do an activity they can't do right now

  • Coping with changes to the usual routine

Structure and routine can provide some normality and predictability in an otherwise unpredictable and chaotic world. Visual Timetables are a fantastic way of helping to reduce children's anxiety. Some children can become distressed when they are unsure of what will be happening during their day, particularly when the structure of their day differs from their normal routine. By having a visual timetable children can see for themselves what will be happening throughout each stage of the day, this can act as a comfort and help children to manage their emotions.

When to Use a Visual Timetable

Visual timetables can be used at any point during the day or throughout the entire day. They are ideal for use at home, in an educational setting, or on the go. Visual timetables can be used to support a sequence of actions children may be finding particularly tricky, they are also great in supporting children to gain more independence such as during toileting or hand washing.

Visual timetable not only aid children in becoming more confident within daily routines, they are also a great tool when supporting behaviour. Children need structure and guidance, with clear instructions that highlight what is expected of them and when. The use of the visual timetable supports children to gain an understanding that to reach the events and activities they most enjoy, they must fulfill the prior tasks first. The ability to see the point within the day they enjoy most in the form of a picture, image, or object helps children to remain positive and optimistic.

Additional Benefits of Visual Timetables

  • Develops memory and recall. Seeing the structure of the day can help with memory skills for children who think better in pictures than in verbal language. The symbols can be retrieved from the ‘finished’ pocket to review the day and put things in time order.

  • Teaches independence and organisation. The child should be managing their own timetable. That means self-checking what they should be doing and where they should be, managing the taking off of the symbols and putting them in the finished pocket themselves.

  • Develops working memory. Seeing what is on the timetable can make recalling what has been done in other lessons easier. This can be supported by a lesson schedule or subject diary.

  • Less reliance on adults. There can be a learned helplessness when a child gets too used to an adult verbally promoting them all the time. This is why know how and where to check something for themselves is a good skill to have. Especially thinking about them growing up and how there is likely to be less attention from an adult at Secondary school.

  • Lessens anxiety and provides structure for breaks. A visual timetable can also let the child know when their sensory breaks are or unexpected events or changes are happening.

Top Tips for Using Visual Timetables

  • Use photos where you can - e.g. a photo of your actual playground when it is playtime

  • Make smaller visual timetables for individual activities, i.e. a Now and Next Board

  • Display the visual timetable separately from visuals that can be used to promote choice making and use of language

  • Be consistent in use of the timetable and refer to it at each point of transition.

  • Prompt the child to take off the pictures once an activity is finished and place them in a labelled finished envelope

  • Include a range of activities on the visual timetable including: activities of daily living (such as ‘brushing teeth’ or ‘shower,’) routines activities (e.g. eating breakfast) as well as trips to the communication (such as ‘Nan’s house,’ ‘Park,’ or ‘Tesco’s.’)

  • Make sure the child’s motivating activities are at regular intervals on the visual timetable, e.g. a less preferred activity followed by something fun (and repeat throughout the day).

  • Timetables can be vertical or horizontal - whichever way works best for each child!

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