Using visual timetables and custom cards to help children with routines and new schedules and reduce anxiety

We’re currently in living through an unprecedented global situation because of the massive impact of COVID-19 (Coronavirus): lockdowns, school and nursery closures.

This post is not about that. But it is about something related, and pressing for many families: helping children to adjust to new routines and changes in schedules.

Our two girls (8 and 4) had been struggling over the winter with the morning routines – wanting to play longer before getting ready for school or having multiple breakfasts, which made getting out of the house hectic and stressful – the opposite of what we need!

In times of stress and change, its tempting to keep things unchanged, so we don’t have to wrangle with the fallout. But sometimes, whether for domestic or global reasons, that isn’t an option. In that case, it often helps to go back to basics with communication; to remove uncertainty and make the world predictable. There is reassurance in knowing where we are and what comes next.

A pair of joyful tornadoes – A (4) & E (8)

My two girls are quite different in many ways. E, 8, is autistic and also has ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder and major anxiety. She craves novelty and is very distractible, but also needs a regular pattern of activities, because the predictable rhythm reduces her anxiety. Her little sister A would talk the hind legs off a donkey, and is a master negotiator at the age of 4. She likes to be in control (it’s her job to think so at this developmental stage; some people never grow out of it) and will find ways to subvert any request or give you 93 reasons why she shouldn’t have to brush her teeth. Delightful, exhausting. The two of them together are like a pair of joyful human tornadoes: there’s a lot of chaos to deal with and I’m frequently left reeling.

A couple of months ago, determined to reduce morning stress, I reverted to the kind of customised visual timetable which had been effective for E when she was 4-5 and A when she was smaller in the hope that it would work again. It did!

This is a good reminder that some of the things we may think of as being SEN-specific techniques are actually good techniques which lots of children could benefit from regardless of how their brain is wired: clear, consistent, based on a recognisable structure and recognising the end user’s agency and involvement

I created a whole stack of activity index cards with a sharpie (‘m no artist, but I can manage a stick figure) and A (with E hovering nearby) decided which order they needed to flow in. We did this by talking through each of the cards and letting her deciding whether each card went before or after another, gradually building the array. This gave her agency in the whole process and makes her more likely to adhere to it because it’s “her” order. Not mine! Honest.

Cards being sorted

There’s space on the right hand side of each card because some things are time-critical. So we can draw clock faces on a few cards to reinforce that, and also to help them see that some things only happen if there’s time (like watching tv in the morning or second breakfast (toast)).

When the array was decided, I ran washi tape down the back of each array and hung them on the kitchen door. This means that when there’s negotiation going on in the morning I can say “Where are we now? What comes next?” and the girls can see it all laid out in sequence. It’s not me deciding you need to brush your teeth, you see, it’s just how things flow…. They also like telling me what comes next. They’re in charge of navigating this routine….

This reduces the demand significantly and means we can all be in the same team working through it rather than me nagging and making demands which is stressful for everyone.

Here’s a link to a downloadable PDF showing a few of the cards we used. There were quite a few more, specific to our family routine, but you get the general idea.

So what does this all have to do with home (or remote) educating, as many of us are now doing because of the Coronavirus crisis?

Two things:

  1. The normal household routines are disrupted, and that’s unsettling for children. You have to help them establish the new normal, and communicate it in a way which shows that it’s predictable and safe. This can help reduce their anxiety at a worrying time.
  2. You can use a similar approach for how you structure home learning time. Details below.

Home or remote schooling is totally different to time in school, obviously. But even if it’s taking place in your front room or at your kitchen table, having a sense of how the day is structured can help children feel reassured and more willing to participate.

In case it’s helpful to anyone embarking on creating new routines for home (whatever they might contain) over the next few weeks, I created a bunch of visual timetable doodle icons for various home learning type activities, for our home learning adventure over the coming months. If you like them, print them out, label them however you want, stick them on index cards.

Some of the learning cards in the pack

As we saw above, when (mostly younger/primary aged) children are struggling with changes to routine, a visual timetable can be a great way of helping them see what’s coming next, how the day is shaped.

And just like the general family routine cards earlier in this post, these learning ones are best constructed together with your children, giving them control over how they approach learning. You can sit down together and decide which “cards” to play, and in which order – you might do this once a week, once a day or once in the morning and again in the afternoon. Don’t attempt to do too many learning activities in a day – 4 is fine.

Another way to use these cards is to think about the topic you want to explore and then use the cards to think about which methods the family could use to learn about that thing (and how you, as an adult, can help support that). It’s best if the child comes up with the method themselves, but it helps if you give them a selection of possible starting off points – which is where the cards can be useful prompts.

Eg We’re going to learn about Gladiators. How could we do that?
We could read books about Roman life.
We could come up with a list of questions we’d like to answer.
We could research roman weapons on the internet.
We could read Asterix the Gladiator.
We could draw what the armour might be like.
We could watch Rotten Romans on Amazon Prime.
We could make a shield out of cardboard and silver foil.
We could pretend to be chased by a lion in an arena and think about how we’d have to move to dodge its claws.
We could investigate Roman Numerals on clocks and other places, and do some simple maths with them.
We could look at google maps to find an original gladiator arena.
We could write a poem about waiting to go into the arena.

(There’s also a very high level set of icons about the scientific investigation method in case you want to go down that route rather than specific activities).

Here’s the downloadable link for that PDF.

I’d love to hear how you get on.