What are visual schedules?

Visual schedules is a broad term that refers to the use of any type of visual tool (with photos, drawings, words, numbers) that helps an individual to understand what will be happening when.

Schedules can provide an overview of a month, a week, a day, an hour, or the steps within an activity.

Benefits of Visual Schedules:

We frequently talk with parents, teachers and support workers about the advantages of using visual schedules.Often, we hear responses such as “Well, they understand everything we tell them” or “He used to use a schedule but doesn’t need it anymore” or “It’s a lot of work to set it up and use it.”

Here is some food for thought regarding all the wonderful reasons to persevere with the use of schedules:

  1.  A universal  skill:
  • In our society, now more than ever, everyone uses Smart phones to keep track of everything in our lives.
  • For individuals with special learning needs, it is imperative that they grasp the concepts related to using a schedule early in life so that they can ‘keep up’ in the world.
  • The ability to follow a schedule makes everything from daily activities, to recreation to job opportunities more accessible.
  1. Easing transitions and reducing anxiety:
  • One of the major issues facing many individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders and others with learning differences is difficulty coping with transitions.  Frequently the shift from one activity to another is stressful and triggers anxiety and sometimes challenging behaviours.
  • Having the sequence of events clearly depicted visually helps individuals to anticipate changes and as a result reduces (and sometimes eliminates) anxiety and difficulty with transitions.
  1. Learning time concepts:
  • Outlining information in a visual format enables individuals to clearly see the sequence of events.
  • This visual presentation is a great tool for teaching concepts such as ‘First, Next, Last’, ‘ Before, After’ which can be abstract and challenging to understand without a visual representation.
  1. Reinforcing verbal instructions:
  • It is very helpful for almost all of us to receive information in more than one form.  Using a visual schedule in addition to telling someone provides dual auditory plus visual input.  Words ‘disappear’ after we say them.  Visuals give language a ‘lasting component’ that doesn’t exist when you just say something, enabling us to review the information as often as needed to fully grasp it.
  • Even individuals who appear to have good comprehension of language can have moments when they are not fully attending or miss certain components of a message.
  • Another common issue is that individuals may hear and understand a verbal message, but their auditory memory to retain that information is not strong and as a result they forget parts or what was said.  Think about something as simple as a grocery list… would you like someone to just tell you the list of 10 things you need to get at the store or would you rather have a list in hand?  Although we understood everything they told us, it is stressful to try to remember all of it without visuals to back it up.  For many of the individuals we support, they lack the skills to ask for clarification or repetition, which can result in poor follow-through of instructions, tuning out, or challenging behaviours.
  1. Supporting literacy development:
  • Another great advantage of visual schedules is that they expose children to text early on as they see words associated with pictures.
  • Not only is there a clear association between picture and text, that pairing occurs within meaningful activities which helps to teach the meaning of those words.
  • Schedules are often laid out in a left to right format, reinforcing that skill which is an important precursor for reading.
  1. Contributing to executive functions:
  • When we talk about Executive Functions, we are referring to an array of skills that are crucial for all of us, such as the ability to plan, organize, self-monitor and complete tasks independently.
  • Visual schedules are one of many important tools that help individuals develop the ability to plan what needs to be done and complete tasks in an appropriate sequence.
  • For many individuals, unstructured or ‘down time’ is problematic in that they do not have strong skills at finding productive things to do and seeing them through from beginning to end.
  • Learning how to follow a schedule independently to complete tasks is incredibly beneficial as it impacts education (attending and completing homework), daily living tasks (everything from playing appropriately while parents cook supper to completing a list of chores), and job opportunities (employers like staff who can follow a schedule and work independently).
  • In our experience, strong executive function skills have a greater impact on quality of life than other areas of ‘intelligence’
  1. Supporting conversational skills:
  • Visual schedules are excellent tools for developing the ability to talk about events.
  • Frequently, we use schedules within and at the end of sessions to stimulate conversations such as “What was your favourite activity today?”  “Which one was hard for you?”  “When did we get up and move?”  “Tell me about the craft we did”, etc.  These topics would be more difficult to review if the schedule was not there to provide a visual framework.


We are always more than happy to discuss the specific benefits of visual schedules for each client, and how to best design and implement them for greatest success.