Why You Should Be Using Visual Schedules in Your Classroom

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Everyone says you must have visuals in an autism classroom. But everyone assumes you know what that means or that these visuals will somehow magically solve students’ behavioral problems. While they can’t do that, they are a really important component of your classroom (and not just for those with autism, either). In this episode, I discuss seven reasons why you need to use visual schedules in your classroom.

3:32​ – The 1st reason helps with your primary goal for students

5:10 – Reason #2 helps cut down on arguments between you and the student

5:54 – Why the actual visual aspect of visual schedules is important

7:07 – How the 4th reason relieves student stress and anxiety

8:40 – Reason number 5 sounds obvious but helps those with difficulty processing information around them

9:38 – The 6th reason reveals a common trait for special ed students (and honestly, a large part of society in general)

10:38 – The final reason why you want to use visual schedules

11:35 – One more thing you need to know to make visual schedules useful in your classroom

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Welcome to the Autism Classroom Resources Podcast, the podcast for special educators who are looking for personal and professional development.

Christine Reeve: I’m your host, Dr. Christine Reeve. For more than 20 years, I’ve worn lots of hats in special education but my real love is helping special educators like you. This podcast will give you tips and ways to implement research-based practices in a practical way in your classroom to make your job easier and more effective.

Hello, how are you? I hope that you are off to a good year in your school year and that things have settled down since the beginning of the year. This is the Autism Classroom Resources Podcast. I’m Chris Reeve, your host. Today we’re going to shift our topics for the next few weeks to talking about visuals. Visuals are something that everybody tells you in an autism class that you have to have and it’s always just assumed that you just know what that means.

It also is always assumed that you just put visuals in front of the students and magically all their behaviors go away, which is not true. They are not a magical type of intervention. Sometimes they do seem that way. But they are a really important component of a structured classroom with clear expectations, particularly for students who have language deficits. They are also something that I don’t think is just autism-related. I’ve used visual schedules with a large number of people including classroom staff.

I think that there is a lot of power in visuals by themselves for we all use them in some way or another. They just may look different. Like I have a written schedule, it’s just not a picture schedule. Sometimes it would be better if it was a picture schedule. But I want to start off by just talking about why we need to use visual schedules. Again, I think they are often just thrown out there as, “Hey, this is something that you have to do,” without a real understanding of why they’re important.

Consequently, I see a lot of people wanting to lay them aside because they don’t really understand what their function is going to be. I once had a teacher who took the visual schedule, individual visual schedules and stapled them to the bulletin board. They weren’t very helpful because the kids never referred to them. That wasn’t really that helpful. Yes, he had visuals, but no, they weren’t really helping our students. That’s what I want to focus on.

Now if you are a seasoned pro, this is an episode that may be useful for you in helping other people understand that visuals are useful and why. That is something that I found so often that the staff that worked for me thought it meant so much more when it came out of someone else’s mouth. You may want to save this podcast and use it in that way as well. I hope that it will be helpful whether you are a new person in this field or whether you’re an experienced person. I think there are some things that can be useful for all so let’s get started.

There’s essentially seven reasons that I’m going to talk about as to why we want to use visual schedules in general. I’m going to talk specifically about schedules. Some of these things will apply to all different kinds of visuals in general, but they are important for visual schedules specifically and that is one of the ways that we use them in the most structured manner.

The first is independence. I use visual schedules because we use them to build the independence of our students, and that is my primary goal in any classroom. If you have a visual schedule, you can have the students use it to transition and navigate their day if they know how to use it. Now we have to teach them how to use it. They don’t just know, we don’t just hand it out as a magic fairy wand and say, “Ah, you’ve been scheduled.” I wish it worked that way.

Instead, we want to make sure that we are teaching them. I will make sure we have a link to a post about how to do that. But once a student knows how to use a visual schedule, they can navigate their school, their classroom schedule, and environment on their own without having to have us tell them where to go, what to do, and where they’re supposed to be. It just is a way for them to be more independent of us but also for us to build independence. If they go with a visual schedule instead of a person, that’s more independence.

The byproduct of that is number two, which is that if I have a schedule that tells me what to do, I can’t argue with it. I can’t tell you how many times I have said “Schedule says” and the student followed the direction. But if I said “I need you to do this,” they fought me. It was a power struggle. This schedule takes that personal piece out of it, and it makes it more objective. It just becomes a fact of life and something I have to do, as opposed to you telling me what to do. When you avoid power struggles in any way that you possibly can, you are likely to have fewer problem behaviors as well.

Another reason why visual schedules are important and why the visual aspect of them is important is because they provide a permanent visual reminder. I can leave you at your desk with a schedule and you can check it throughout the activity or throughout the day and follow it without me having to be there. When the teacher moves on to work with another student, the activity or the transition doesn’t stop. The visual schedule carries it. It’s something I can leave with them.

They may not use that schedule forever. They may not have a picture schedule on the wall forever but they might have a planner that maybe has pictures or some icon to tell them what the different activities are that they pull out of their backpack and check. We all have a visual schedule of some kind. Some of us are able to hold it in our heads. Some of us are less able to hold them in our heads than we used to be, and that permanent reminder is why the planner industry just exists. They think that if you have a planner, all your stress is gone. It doesn’t work that way.

Speaking of stress, number four is that visual schedules can relieve students’ anxiety. Imagine if I took your planner away from you. Would you know when you’re supposed to go to the dentist? Would you know the location of your child’s soccer game? You might find that you keep asking questions when you don’t have a visual to refer to.

When I talked about pre-separation probably a couple months back, I talked about the fact that when I was flying a lot, I’d constantly be checking to see when my flight was leaving. The fact that I could go and see it, then I didn’t have to hold it in my head. If you have a student who engages in constant questioning, sometimes it’s because they’re anxious about what’s going to happen next. What are we going to do next? What’s next? We’re going to do this, right? Then we’re going to do this, right?

A schedule allows them to check their schedule instead of checking with you. I didn’t call my sister every five minutes and say “What time does my plane leave?” I didn’t call Delta and ask them “What time does my plane leave?” I looked at my ticket and looked at my app. Yes, I flew before we had apps. The same is true with our students. If we can give them this as a strategy, they have a place that they can go back, relieve that anxiety about what’s going to happen next. Relieving that anxiety means they can focus on what you want them to do now, because they’re not worried about what comes next.

The other reason is that visual schedules communicate with our students. Many of them have a hard time processing language and information going on around them. They have difficulty knowing who they need to attend to in their environment. A schedule gives students information about what’s going to happen and what is expected. When I check my schedule, it tells me that we’re going to PE so I know to be prepared that we’re going outside. If it tells me it’s time for lunch, I know to prepare myself for entering the loud and smelly cafeteria.

This communication can help them to use picture symbols receptively to understand what’s happening in their environment, and eventually build some more expressive use of them as well. It’s pairing the visual with the direction and with the routine so they begin to understand what that visual means.

Number six is that individuals with autism do often understand visual information best. Now we know that every student with autism is a unique student. If you’ve met one student with autism, you’ve met one student with autism. There are students on the spectrum that the visual is not their best manner. But frankly, visual is the best manner for a large part of our population. It’s a lot faster to comprehend a sign or a picture than to read a sentence.

For many of our students for whom visual is a really good information pathway, they may comprehend information faster and more easily visually. By looking at the schedule, it’s using a strength to help them with an area like transitioning that may not be a strength for them or independence, which may not be a strength for them.

Finally, the seventh reason why we want to use visual schedules is because they are an evidence-based practice and that’s what every consultant walks in and says, “You need to be using schedules.” But if you don’t really understand why they’re an evidence-based practice, just knowing it’s an EBP doesn’t really help you. Both the National Professional Development Center for Autism Spectrum and the National Autism Center have found visual schedules to be an evidence-based practice. They both found, either as part of the TEACCH structure teaching component or just visual support in general for a wide range of ages, these practices have research that supports them.

That is important that it isn’t just something that we’re doing, because it feels like it would be a good thing. Those are seven reasons why visual schedules are important. I’m going to give you one more thing to know to really make them useful in your classroom. Don’t start a visual schedule unless you have a structured schedule of your classroom.

Now, I don’t mean that you have a schedule, but you know it’s going to change tomorrow because it’s the first week of school. I mean, in order to really have a visual schedule, you have to have a structured schedule of your classroom where activities begin at a certain time and end at a certain time. Things go in a specific order.

One of the reasons why visual schedules are effective in a lot of situations is because you have to fix your classroom schedule to be structured with activities having a beginning and an end, and then we go to this activity and then we go to that activity, because otherwise, you don’t know what that visual is for. In order to create your visual schedule, you’ve got to have a structured classroom schedule. That would be my bonus tip for this.

I see a lot of people walk in and tell teachers, especially new teachers, “You have to have visual schedules,” but nobody ever really helped them make a structured schedule for the classroom before they went and hung visuals on it, they just went straight to the visuals. There is an order in which we want to do things and we want to make sure that we’ve got a clear sequence of events that we then can present with our visual schedule. Those are just reasons that I have found over the years and reasons that are evidence or research tells us make visuals important for our students with autism.

I hope that they are helpful to you, some may be not new for you, but maybe they can help someone convince somebody that you work with that they really are a good idea. I will be back next week when I will be talking again about visual supports and I will be talking about what kind of schedule should I use. I hope that you’ll join us then.

In the meantime, if you are looking for more tips on teaching in a special-ed classroom, and serving the students who have some behavioral issues, students with autism, or intellectual disabilities, come give us a try at the Special Educator Academy. We can help bring you into our community of people who do what you are doing, and share the training and support that you get through that. You can get a seven-day free trial at specialeducatoracademy.com. Thank you so much for listening. I’d love it if you’d leave a review on your favorite podcast app. I hope that I will see you again next week. Have a great week.EP 137 Transcript

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