Visual Schedules: A Vital Ingredient of the Learning Setting

by Mia Hyman, Gateways Behavioral Specialist

Helping our students feel a sense of accomplishment and predictability

My mom always jokes that she spends her life checking items off her schedule, so her final request is that she would like the word “LIFE” emblazoned on her tombstone, complete with a large checkmark beside it! 

My mom’s dark humor aside, there is something extremely satisfying about checking a responsibility or task off your to-do list. Likewise, it is also very comforting to know what is coming next. Helping our students to feel comfortable and satisfied while they learn is vital to the educational process. As I’ve coached countless teachers over the years, there is a simple way to generate these positive feelings among students: Visual schedules. This strategy provides the chance for students to feel a sense of accomplishment, and, further, by framing the classroom setting in predictability, visual schedules help build independence and serve as an extremely helpful transition tool.  

For students (and for all of us), knowing what is coming next helps to ease anxiety.  A visual schedule lets students know what they can look forward to, and, more importantly, provides a heads-up about those subjects they may not enjoy as much. On the positive side, a visual schedule also makes clear that those less enjoyable moments do have a set endpoint. When a classroom setting is predictable, both students and teachers can remain on the same page and clearly see that a structured group plan is in place. 

A few tips to make visual schedules as useful as possible:

First, and most obvious, a visual schedule must actually be visible to all students in the classroom.

Second, the visual schedule should be used actively as part of the classroom routine, meaning that teachers and students refer to it throughout the class. I often encourage teachers to check off what gets completed (or, even better, to have one of the students check the items off each time). Further, teachers can even create a mini-schedule within the block that is coming up next.  For example, the teacher might write “math” on the main visual schedule, and then place on the board the 3–5 tasks that will be completed during that math block, such as:

  • Independent math workbook session, page 3–4 (8 minutes)
  • Lesson on board – fractions (10 minutes)
  • Partner work – fractions (10 minutes)
  • Math game (10 minutes)
  • Clean-up (2 minutes)

As always, the more predictability, the better. Then, once the math lesson is complete, referring to the large visual schedule to transition to the next activity will, again, allow for predictability and ease in transitioning to the next lesson. 

Visual Schedule

Visual schedules also help build independence. Who hasn’t heard a student say, “What’s coming next?” or “What are we doing after that?” When students ask this type of question, rather than responding to the student with the answer, prompt them to look at the board and find the answer themselves. In most cases, those constant “what are we doing next?” questions decrease in frequency as students come to know where they can find the schedule information on their own. 

I am always amazed to see how a visual schedule, when used to its full potential, can be a powerful preventative strategy for challenging behavior. With a reduction in unpredictability often comes a lowering of anxiety among those students who are most prone to be anxious. In turn, as their anxiety wanes, so, too, does their tendency to engage in unexpected behaviors.  

In my experience, most teachers do post a visual schedule, but unless it becomes fully integrated as an educational tool, its potential impact will lie dormant. So, my simple advice is: Do not let your visual schedule sit on the wall. Challenge yourself to use it daily and rely on it to help you create a setting that will be structured, comfortable and successful for your students.