Ample research supports using visual schedules in the classroom as proactive whole-class behavior management. Visual Schedules are well supported by evidence to support a student with ADHD in the classroom environment. Most agree that posting the day’s schedule is a common teaching practice in general education.
We all use a schedule. We just call them by different names. Teachers use plan books, high-powered office executives use agendas, and travelers follow Itineraries. I can not go a day without my monthly calendar, day planner, and to-do list. The thought of remaining somewhere for 7 hours without a detailed breakdown of the upcoming events gives me anxiety. There is no possible way I would be able to focus on “now” if I didn’t know what was coming “next.”
Many General Education Teachers Find Them Ineffective
It is mind-blowing how often I observe classrooms that are not using visual schedules effectively or not using them at all. So why in the world would a teacher not use this proactive piece of gold?
While using a Visual Schedule appears simple, there are multiple elements to this skilled intervention that, when systematically considered, will make or break its effectiveness.
This post will provide the school-based practitioner with the tools needed to collaborate with the classroom teacher to co-design an effective Visual Schedule. In addition, the reader will learn 8 critical design elements for designing and implementing a visual schedule that best meets the needs of the specific learner(s) to facilitate improved occupational performance in the classroom environment.
When we collaboratively design the visual schedule with the classroom teacher, teachers are more likely to implement and adopt the intervention as part of their everyday practice.
Benefits of A Visual Schedule
Visual Schedules have numerous benefits, including:
- Provides a clear external structure for the school day with a fixed reference point.
- Provides the entire class with clarity, safety, and consistency.
- Reduces stress & anxiety about the order of events or activities.
- Reduces the need for repetitive teacher prompting.
- Helps students sequence predictable events.
- Increases predictability of the session/day.
- Increases independence and self-efficacy.
- Facilitates teaching and learning of transition behaviors
- Supports retention & recall of information
- Increase engagement and on-task behaviors for all students
- Support planning and organization
Visual Schedules Support Executive Function
Visual schedules support and scaffold weakness in the executive functions common to learners with ADHD.
Working memory: Visual schedules support working memory by providing a concrete example of verbal directions therefore reducing the cognitive load. Visuals are a permanent representation of verbal information that naturally allows for language processing differences. Visual schedules help kids see what you mean and are transferable between environments and people.
Cognitive Flexibility: Visual schedules support cognitive flexibility by providing a visual of what is coming up next. Visual schedules soften transitions making them expected and easier to tolerate.
Time Processing/Management: Visual schedules support time processing/management by providing an external representation of the time horizon. They foster independence and scaffold responsibility and planning. Visual schedules are commonly cited by research to decrease work completion times.
Response Inhibition: Visual schedules support response inhibition by reducing internal distractions and providing clear expectations and steps of a task. A visual schedule gives structure to unstructured events. “They provide predictability to the day, reducing disruptive behaviors in classrooms “(1)
Self Regulation: Visual schedule supports self-regulation by reducing anxiety and conflict. Visuals are neutral. They do not convert tone or invite power struggle.
Visual Schedule Components – Not as Simple as it Looks
Visual support for learning is part of the Structured Teaching methodology that emphasizes the importance of predictability and flexible routines in the classroom setting. They are most effective when designed to match the student’s strengths and needs.
There are 8 critical design elements that determine the effectiveness of a visual schedule.
- The type of visual schedule ( whole class, individualized, task, routine)
- The location where the schedule will be displayed
- The form of representation used in the schedule
- The length of the schedule
- The presentation format
- The method of manipulating the schedule.
- The method to initiate schedule use
- The frequency of schedule review
One or all of these components can be adjusted to improve the effectiveness of an existing schedule that “is not working.” Therapists can use the attached download, based on the work of Hume, K., & Smith, S. (2009), to design a schedule and check the implementation fidelity of existing schedules.
Practitioners collaborate with the classroom teacher to conduct an individualized assessment of the learner’s comprehension level and sequencing abilities. As the learners’ skills improve, the above 8 components can be systematically scaffolded/ graded to increase independence.
Types of Visual Schedules
Different types of visual schedules can be used to support students with ADHD or EF weaknesses.
Whole Class Daily Schedule:
The schedule outlines the entire day. They are usually large and centrally located, with multiple forms of representation designed for whole class use.
Individual schedules can be personal copies of the class schedule located on the student’s desk or an individualized variation of the entire day’s schedule that may include activities specific to the learner , for example, OT, PT, or Speech session times. Individual schedules provide an opportunity for additional methods of manipulation as in the form of a checklist or icon removal.
Routine schedules break down steps to complete a sequence of multiple tasks, ie. unpack routines, and pack up routines. They provide external support during classroom routines and procedures that can reduce disruptive off-task behavior.
Within Task Schedule:
Breaks down sequences of steps and materials needed to complete an individual task or activity into simple, straightforward, and manageable steps.
The First-Then schedule gives visual support to what we are doing now and what is coming up next. Used specific to a student and aids in transitions.
Location of the schedule
The location of the schedule can be determined by a learner’s needs and current abilities. Teachers and therapists can access strengths and needs to select the location of the schedule. Be mindful of the amount of visual stimuli surrounding the Visual Schedule.
- Stationary – the schedule is placed in a central location (e.g., wall, shelf, desk)
- Portable – the learner carries a portable schedule across locations (e.g., clipboard, notebook)
- Prompted: teachers/practitioners bring schedule information to the learner
Form of Representation
The form of representation is an essential element. Matching the learner’s comprehension and understanding level can improve the function of the visual schedule. Can the learner read, and understand 2-D picture representations of the activity, or do they require a 3D model? Using a combination of pictures, symbols and words promote comprehension for multiple learners.
Form of representation elements include:
- phrases or sentences
- drawing or picture symbols
- symbolic objects
- actual objects used in the activity
Children might be overwhelmed by the length of an entire daily schedule. Practitioners/ teachers must consider how much information will be presented to the student at one time. Some learners benefit from seeing the sequence of activities that will occur throughout the entire day, while others benefit from seeing only several activities on their schedule at one time.
- one item, signifying upcoming transitions
- two items
- three to four items
- full day
The practitioner/ teacher can decide how to present the information to the student.
The schedule can be formatted in :
- Left-to-right progression
- Top to bottom presentation : i.e.: a checklist
- Multiple rows of information- for more advanced learners
Method of Manipulating the Schedule
Students may manipulate the schedule cues in several different ways. Some benefit from a checklist or a velcro pull-off or a physical representation of the activity they are transitioning to be carried to the location and placed into “a “done” envelope. The schedule pieces can sometimes become a distraction or an unnecessary additional step or item to lose. For some learners a flip chart is beneficial.
There are multiple ways learners can manipulate the schedule cues:
- The learner marks off visual cues on schedule as completed
- The learner turns over the visual cue or puts it in the “finished” location
- The learner carries an object/visual cue to the area. This object or visual cue is matched in the corresponding location.
- The learner carries the actual object used in the upcoming activity.
Method to Initiate Schedule Use
The method in which the teacher cues the learner to ” check the “schedule” increases or decreases the level of support. Teachers and therapists can scaffold with a visual, verbal, or physical ( bringing the schedule to the student) and then gradually lessen support to increase independence.
The teacher should use consistent transition cues for students to check the Visual Schedule upon finishing one activity & moving to the next activity. When a student is uncertain about what to do or asks a question that the Visual Schedule can answer, the teacher can prompt/redirect the student to the Visual Schedule
- teachers/practitioners to bring schedule information to the learner
- the learner moves to the schedule using a visual transition cue
Frequency of Schedule Review
The schedule should be used consistently and daily as part of the class routine. It should be taught directly and should not be treated as an incidental teaching tool (Bornman & Rose 2017). The method and frequency of reviewing the schedule with the student can augment the level of support.
- Teachers can arrange the daily schedule prior to arrival.
- Teachers arrange schedules with the learner scaffolding structure to the day/activity
- Teachers review the schedule before each transition.
Changes- A change icon, card, or picture needs to be used when unexpected changes happen (and they will). A visual for the student or the whole class that signifies an upcoming difference is a proactive strategy for classroom behavior management.
Once a student has mastered independent usage of the visual schedule with the current level of support, practitioners can decide how to continue to improve the student’s skills. Practitioners can decrease the level of support by adjusting any of the 8 schedule components. Staff may choose to change the form of the schedule from pictures to words, or increase the length of the schedule from part-day to full-day.
Download Your Copy
Below is a small selection of resources for you to consider when designing visual schedules. I will update this section from time to time as I discover new ones.
Boardmaker has free 30-day trials that you can use to make a variety of visual sc edules. Support learning and communication in the classroom, therapy room, or home with this trove of customizable material, including access to over 40,000 Picture Communication Symbols (PCS). Boardmaker 7 is offered as a Standard or Subscription option. https://goboardmaker.com/pages/software-trials
Canva – I make all my resources on Canva. It is free to use the basic version. I made this simple wipe-off schedule for a Minecraft-obsessed student with difficulty with changes and transitions.
This app is a personal favorite.
I use it every day to structure OT sessions and in-task visual schedules.
Choiceworks allows for personalization and folders for each student, and it even allows videos for video modeling of tasks. It has built-in timers and verbal feedback” all done”. It costs $12.99 at the time of writing this post.
Teachers Pay Teachers
Here are two resources of visual schedule icons sourced directly from my past purchases. You will have to print and laminate, but I use them frequently.
Print Path OT Visual Schedules I have been using these from Print Path for my younger students.
Amazon has affordable whole class size schedules with pocket charts and a variety of forms of representation. Below are clickable links to commercially available whole class resources. I recently joined the affiliate program for Amazon, so I may receive credits for the below charts.
I hope this helps you create effective visual schedules to support your students with ADHD. Download the checklist by clicking the image below.
- Thomas N, Karuppali S. The Efficacy of Visual Activity Schedule Intervention in Reducing Problem Behaviors in Children With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Between the Age of 5 and 12 Years: A Systematic Review. Soa Chongsonyon Chongsin Uihak. 2022 Jan 1;33(1):2-15. d i: 10.5765/jkacap.210021. PMID: 35035237; PMCID: PMC 733412..
- Hume, K. (2009). Steps for implementation: Visual schedules. Chapel Hill, NC: The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, The University of North Carolina
- Zimmerman N, Ledford JR, Barton EE. Using Visual Activity Schedules for Young Children with Challenging Behavior. Jour al of Early Intervention. 2017;39(4):339-358. doi:10.1177/1053815117725693
- Hart Barnett, J. E. (2017). Helping Students with ADHD in the A e of Digital Distraction. Research, Advocacy, and Practice for Complex and Chronic Conditions, 36(2), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.14434/pders.v36 2.23913
- Green, G. (2001). Behavior analytic instruction for learners with autism: Advances in stimulus control technology. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 16, 72-85.
- Cox R. & Boswell, S. (1999). Checklist for the individualiz tion of visual schedules. TEACCH Level 1 Sem nar.
- Connelly, A. (2017). The Master’s visual schedules (Master’s thesis, Northwestern College, Orange City, IA). Retrieved from http://nwcommons.nwciowa.edu/education_master /40/
- ‘Finished Teacher’sTask Toolkit – A teacher’s guide to using visual schedules and work systems i’ the mainstream classroom’ by Elizabeth Macdonald (Autism CRC funded Ph.D. scholar, Griffith University) and Kaaren Haas (Autism Spectrum Australia, Aspect).
- Banda, D. R., & Kubina, R. M., Jr. (2006). The effects of a high-probability request sequencing technique in enhan ing transition behaviors. Education and Treatment of Children, 29(3), 507–511, 513–516https://www.inclusioned.edu.au/projects/structured-teaching