Arranging Schedules

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Intentional scheduling is an environmental arrangement strategy important for all early childhood classrooms. Below are descriptions of schedules for children (e.g., visual schedules) and scheduling strategies for adults.

Visual Schedules     

Visual schedules are an environmental arrangement strategy used to increase the predictability and structure of classroom routines, transitions, and activities. Visual schedules are photographs, symbols, pictures, or drawings used to provide information about upcoming events. Research has shown visual schedules can be used to increase children’s engagement, social interactions, communication, independence, and compliance with classroom tasks and activities. Three types of schedules can be used in the classroom: individualized across activity schedules, within activity schedules, and classwide daily schedules. The critical part of all schedules is that children should be directly taught to use and understand the scheduling system.

Individualized Across Activity Schedules

EBIP_visual schedules_3Visual schedules can be created for individual students to assist them in transitioning across activities during all or part of a day. Individualized across activity schedules may be helpful for children who exhibit difficulty transitioning independently, require predictability in routines, and benefit from structured routines and visual supports. Before using an individualized across activity schedule, adults should make a list of the different locations in the school or home visited by the child (i.e., bathroom, free play, art table, circle time, lunch, playground) or activities the child should complete if multiple activities are associated with an area (hand washing, toileting, eating snack, eating lunch). Next the adults should decide what type of icons should be used for the child (i.e., photographs, 3-D objects, line drawings, or abstract symbols). Selecting the appropriate icon can be done in consultation with a speech language pathologist, but can also be completed by the classroom teacher after considering a child’s language level. The typical progression of icons is as follows: 3-D objects (lunchbox to signal lunch), photographs (actual photos of the locations), pictures (clip art or software generated images), line drawings, and abstract symbols (math problem to signal the math center). Children with less complex language should have access to less complex symbols. Finally, adults should decide how many icons should be placed on the schedule. At least two items should be placed on the schedule at all times so the child can transition across activities. It may also be helpful to set the schedule to a natural break in the day (i.e., lunch or playground time) to allow adults to reset the schedule for the remainder of the day.

After the schedule is created, EBIP_visual schedules_5place the schedule in a permanent location in the classroom or home (i.e., the edge of a bookshelf or on the refrigerator) or design a transportable system (e.g., a laminated folder that the child takes with him to each activity). Next create a system for moving with the schedule. The two most common systems are (a) scanning and (b) matching. A scanning system involves placing a bucket or folder at the bottom of the schedule. The child is taught to take the next icon off the schedule, scan the picture, drop the icon in the bucket below the schedule, and transition to the activity. A matching system involves placing a folder or Velcro strip at each location depicted on the schedule with a replica of the icon. For example, the books icon would be on the wall in the books center with an open Velcro strip. The child is taught to take the next icon off the schedule, look at the picture, hold the icon while transitioning to the designated location, and matching the icon to the replica in the correct location. Finally, create a system for returning to the schedule so the child has a cue of when to check his or her schedule. The following may be used to cue the child to check his or her schedule: delivery of a ‘check your schedule card,’ auditory cue (i.e., timer, bell, or chime), or delivery of the child’s photograph to match to a photograph at the top of his/her schedule. The cue to check the schedule should be independent of an adult verbal cue so the schedule can be used independent of adult assistance.

Direct teaching (e.g., Progressive Time Delay, Graduated Guidance) will be required so the child learns to use the schedule. When teaching the child to use the schedule, prompting should be limited to gestural or physical prompts so the child does not become reliant on verbal prompting to navigate the schedule process. Remember, independent across activity schedules are designed for a child’s independent use; if a child uses adult verbal directives to cue the system, it is no longer an independent task. Children may need 3-5 days of explicit teaching to use the schedule before independent use; if the child is not independently using the schedule for at least some steps some of the time fairly quickly, you may be using a schedule that is too complex. The process of checking the schedule, moving to the designated location, and rechecking the schedule becomes the predictable transition routine for the child. As a result, the order of icons may vary daily (i.e., art, dramatic play, math, snack or math, art, dramatic play, snack). However, the schedule should always reflect what will actually happen that day and should be maintained so it is ready and available for children from the moment they enter the classroom until the moment they leave. If novel activities occur, teachers should devise a symbol for that activity and teach the child what the symbol means. For example, you may have a “special activity” symbol onto which you add a second symbol. The “special activity” portion tells the child that something different is happening, while the specific addition tells child exactly what that “something” is.

Within Activity Schedules

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Visual schedules can also be created to help children move through steps in a single activity. Within activity schedules are schedules that show the steps of an activity in chronological sequence to assist a child completing a multi-step activity. Within activity schedules can be used to assist children in completing daily routines (i.e., morning routine, washing hands, toileting, lunch to nap transition), adult directed activities (i.e., creating an art project, circle time), and play routines (i.e., restaurant play script, building a tower play script, washing a baby play script). For example, a within activity schedule may be created to assist a child in transitioning from lunch to nap. Each step of the routine is depicted on the schedule by a different icon: dump plate, push in chair, potty, wash hands, get a book, lay on cot. Children will require direct teaching (e.g., Progressive Time Delay, Graduated Guidance) to navigate a within activity schedule to know (a) what the icons mean and (b) how to perform the actions depicted on the icons. EBIP_visual schedules_6Within activity schedules may also provide cues to prompt adults to assist children in engaging with peers in different play routines. For example, the dramatic play area may contain four within activity schedules: restaurant schedule, baby schedule, construction worker schedule, and a doctor schedule. Each schedule could depict a simple play scheme for the theme. For example, the construction worker schedule may have pictures depicting the following: hat/vest, measuring tape, hammer, and level. The within activity schedule could prompt the adult monitoring the center to prompt children to create a play scheme with a partner using the explicit construction tools available in the center. Some research suggests children will generalize schedule use to new activities, whereas other research suggests children may need explicit instruction in how to use each schedule. As with across-activity schedules, simply making the visual depictions is inadequate—children should be explicitly taught what each representation means in terms of expected behaviors, and should be reinforced for engaging in those behaviors.

Class-Wide Daily SchedulesEBIP_visual schedules_2

Class-wide daily schedules
provide a visual depiction of the general events that will occur during the day for all children in the classroom. Class-wide schedules should be large enough to be seen from most areas of the classroom, and low enough to ensure children can access the schedule to investigate the plan for the school day. Class-wide schedule icons may be less explicit than independent or within task activity schedules. For example, the class-wide schedule may include the following icons: breakfast, circle time, centers, playground, small group, lunch, nap, snack, playground, home. Each center available may not be depicted on the class-wide schedule, but the time in which center choices will be available is on the schedule. Class-wide daily schedules should also include any special events for the day including a field trip, guest speaker, or unexpected changes (i.e., indoor play time due to weather). Many children may not need individual across activity schedules, when a class-wide schedule is well-contructed, often-referenced, and directly taught.

Scheduling Strategies

Intentional planning of classroom transitions, activities, and routines is one of the most important aspects of environmental arrangement. When planning the daily schedule, routines should be predictable within and across activities. Common routines that should be explicitly taught to children using systematic teaching procedures (i.e., Progressive Time Delay, Graduated Guidance) and practiced across the school year include: morning routine (entry in classroom, storage of personal items, engaging in the first activity of the day or choosing an activity), movement between centers or activities (i.e., moving a picture), cleaning up (at the end of your play or everyone together at a specific time), transitioning outside the classroom, mealtime routines, naptime, and toileting. Adult roles as well as children’s roles should be clearly articulated and established for each routine at the beginning of the school year. The beginning of the school year should be explicitly and almost exclusively devoted to establishment and reinforcement of expected classroom behaviors, until the majority of children understand expectations and consistently engage in routines. As children learn to independently complete the classroom routines, adult roles in facilitating routines may move from explicit prompting to praising students for completing steps of the routine, to monitoring children’s transitions and providing explicit re-teaching when needed.

EBIP_visual schedules_4Classroom transitions can also be scheduled and planned to increase children’s independence and time engaged with materials and activities. Transitions between activities should be short and clearly articulated through a common class-wide procedure. It may also be beneficial to eliminate class-wide transitions in favor of small group, staggered transitions between locations (i.e., classroom to playground) or across activities (i.e., adult directed activities ending at different times). Staggering movement from the classroom to the playground by 1-2 minutes for groups of children ensures adults each have a role in moving children quickly to a new area, maintains ratio requirements, and increases the likelihood children may become engaged in the new location more quickly than if the entire class transitioned at one time. This is especially true when these transitions have specific requirements that could result in prolonged wait times (e.g., all children must wash hands when entering the classroom).

Finally, using effective environmental arrangement related to scheduling can increase children’s engagement and opportunities to learn in the classroom. Activities should be purposefully planned prior to children initiating the activity, involve multiple opportunities for children to engage with materials and each other (see choice and withholding materials sections), and be relatively short in duration to maintain children’s interest and attention. Arranging materials for adults in the classroom may decrease the time children spend waiting for an activity. Labeled bins with the materials required for an activity can be created and placed in the appropriate locations prior to children entering the classroom. A common system for storing materials for an activity (i.e., labeled blue bins only include teacher-directed activity materials) will also assist all adults in the classroom in executing meaningful activities across the school day. Additionally, relatively short activities provide opportunities for children to move between seated activities. Children’s schedules may be planned to allow for movement between activities (i.e., circle time, centers, small group) or to allow them to move during activities (i.e., free play across multiple open centers). Purposefully arranging classroom furniture with designated center locations and clear pathways for movement during transitions coupled with strategic plans for the scheduling of daily activities assist children and adults in accessing the real purposes of the room: learning while having fun!

To cite this page (APA 6th edition):

  • Zimmerman, K.N. & Ledford, J.R. (2016). Arranging schedules. In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. Retrieved from