Visual Schedules: Why You Need One NOW

It’s time for bed and I brush my teeth, put on some pajamas, plug in my phone, say good night to the pups, and then…check my schedule. Yep, I review my schedule for the day that is ending to bring closure, and look ahead to see what is coming tomorrow.

I wake up and what is the first thing I do? Say good morning to whichever family member has awoken me … I mean I haven’t needed an alarm clock in years. Quickly followed by this is a stretch and a check of, you guessed it, my schedule for the day. Before I even drag my body out of bed I have looked at what’s ahead and begun planning. What will I wear, will I be leaving the house, what are the transportation needs of the day, what has to be done before I leave the house…

We all use visual schedules. Wall calendars, google calendar, iCal, Outlook, appointment books. Many of us link our visual schedule to auditory reminders via our phones and virtual assistants. Why do we do this? Because we worry that we will miss something. We will forget an appointment. We won’t accomplish all of our tasks if we don’t organize and plan. Because without those visual reminders, we become overwhelmed by the rush of our daily lives. We become stressed and anxious. We make mistakes which lead to disappointments and confusion.

So if we, as grown adults, rely heavily on visual schedules, (and still make mistakes in planning,) why would we expect our children to NOT use them too?

School is ending and summer is beginning. While this brings images of idyllic days filled with sunshine and spontaneous play, the reality is, most days are spent moving from activity to activity, trying to calm the anxious child and help them focus. The anxious child is left asking, “what are we doing?” ALL DAY LONG with intermittent outbursts, behavioral melt downs and endless power struggles.

Here are 10 reasons why you need to begin using visual schedules NOW:

Provides organization, structure and predictability to the day. Visual schedules are a great way to build routine and inform kids about the expectations for the day. For many children they have learned the routines of the school year and rely heavily on the predictability of getting ready for school and the structure of the school day. Summer vacation often takes away that structure and predictability, leading to anxiety and dysregulation.

Allows change to be introduced easily. A new task or activity can easily be introduced into a visual schedule by placing it between two items already on the schedule. Since kids can see the new change visually and where that change takes place, they can adapt better to those changes. Always have a wild card ready to add in.

Independence: Caregiver, I know you’re busy and I know you long for you child to be just a little bit more independent. If you have a schedule, you can transition and navigate your day without another person having to tell you where to go and what to do.

They help avoid power struggles. 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 had the child follow the direction but if I said, “I need you to do ” it wouldn’t happen. The schedule takes the “personal” piece out of it and makes it more objective.

They provide a permanent visual reminder. I can leave a schedule with them and they can check it throughout the day. When I move on to something else, the activity or the transition doesn’t stop.

They relieve anxiety. Imagine if I took your calendar away from you. Would you know when your dentist appointment would be? Do you know the location of your child’s game?You might find you keep asking those questions when you don’t have a visual to refer to (i.e., your calendar). Do you have a child that is constantly questioning? Sometimes it’s because they are anxious about what is going to happen next. A schedule allows them to check their schedule instead of checking with you and learn to independently moderate their anxiety. Reducing anxiety allows them to focus on the task at hand.

They communicate with others. They give children and other members of the home information about what is going to happen and what is expected. When I check my schedule and it tells me we are going to the playground with friends, I know to be prepared to go outside and for loud voices all around me. If it tells me it’s time for a a meeting, I begin to calm my body and focus my mind on the upcoming agenda. This communication also helps them use picture symbols receptively to understand what is happening in their environment and eventually to communicate. It also allows others in the home to know what is expected of each other for the day so you can tag out without a 10 minute dissertation.

They ease transitions. Switching tasks can be extremely tough for children, especially if they are unexpected changes. A visual schedule, however, reduces meltdowns and struggles about moving to the next task because the schedule visually depicts what comes next. As a result, the schedule helps kids anticipate any changes.

Teaches responsibility and planning. Children can take part in planning out their day by helping their parents or teachers build the visual schedule or routine for the day. Doing so allows them to think about and plan out tasks in an appropriate sequence, helping to build strong executive functioning skills. With scaffolding and building on learned skills, kids also learn to move onto the next task or activity on the schedule on their own after completing the previous one.

Creating and planning the schedule builds connection. When children have your undivided attention for 2 minutes planning out the day, there is negotiation and children feel seen, heard and valued. As the caregiver, you feel a sense of accomplishment in telling a child they are valued and they can trust you. It also alleviates some of your anxiety helping you to be more fully present with your child.

Individuals who have had traumatic experiences often understand visual information best. This isn’t true of all individuals, but for many they comprehend information faster and more easily visually. So why not use a medium that uses their strengths. Some children may need specific times while most just need an order to their day. Schedules do not need to be super specific but general. Inside play, outside play, clean up, bath, library, park, etc. Coupled with transitional cues, such as verbal reminders 10 minutes until , 5 minutes until , visual schedules can take a day of anxiety and power struggles and turn it into that summer fun you crave.

For some examples of images to use, visit

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