How to Use Schedules for Behavior Support

visual schedule

Schedules can make a positive difference in a child’s behavior in class or at home. When a schedule is in place, children know what is coming next and what is expected of them. Knowing what is coming next lessens anxiety because there is no uncertainty about what they are going to be doing.

As adults, we set up our day and we make our own choices, so we know what is coming next. Imagine doing one thing and having no idea what is going to happen when you are done, or picture someone coming over to you before you are finished with something you enjoy, stopping you from what you are doing, and demanding that you do something else. These situations would stress or frustrate most people. This is often what happens to children when schedules are not in place.

Young children or children with autism or other disabilities such as ADHD, could get anxious or frustrated, when they are directed to do something they were not expecting, or when they are abruptly told to stop a preferred activity. This could lead to challenging behaviors. They also may have troubling remembering or visualizing, if you simply tell them how the day will unfold. A schedule makes it easier to understand, follow, and remember the expectations of the day. .

Also, when a schedule is in place, children get used to their routine. Although schedules should be slightly varied from day to day to allow for flexibility, they should be similar enough to allow the child to become comfortable and familiar with his routine. When a child is comfortable in his routine, he also feel less anxious and needs less reminders from you about what is expected.

When you first initiate the schedule, you may need to give the child several reminders to check it (stay calm as not to turn the child off from the schedule), but as it becomes a normal part of his day, he may start to check it on his own. The ultimate goal is for the child to become so familiar with his schedule, that he starts to implement it independently without even looking. For example, let’s say your child’s schedule upon returning from school is:

  • Snack
  • Homework for a half an hour
  • 10 minute break for a fun activity
  • Homework for another half an hour
  • Watch TV for a half an hour
  • Set the Table
  • Eat Dinner
  • Play on computer (half hour)
  • Tidy up bedroom
  • Put on pajamas
  • Read a story
  • Go to bed

If you consistently implement this schedule, your child can start to implement some of these tasks without you even asking. It will be so nice to have your child complete his homework, set the table, and tidy up his room without constant reminders from you. Also, if he is expected to follow the schedule, you are setting up a realistic way to make your child accountable for his own behaviors. Children often have a lot of expectations. They have trouble being accountable because they have difficulty managing their tasks in an organized way. A schedule allows them to do this. Setting a schedule is also a way of enforcing rules. The rule is that one thing in the schedule must be completed before moving on to the next. If your child tries to get on the computer before completing homework, simply refer to the schedule and say “remember your schedule, you need to complete your homework before you get on the computer.” Blaming the rule on the schedule is a great way to avoid confrontation. It sounds a lot different to a child to hear you refer to a schedule than to hear you say, “you didn’t complete your homework so you can’t get on the computer.”

Children who are not used to the approach of enforcing a daily schedule may complain or argue initially, but when they see you are going to implement it consistently and not budge on your position, they will learn to follow the rules. Some children even find it fun to complete a schedule.

Allow the child to participate in the creation of a home schedule. At school, schedules are often created by the teacher, but allow the children in your class to participate if possible. Once the schedule is created, review it thoroughly with the child to the best of their ability to ensure understanding. For children with speech and language delays or difficulties, such as those on the autism spectrum, visual schedules with pictures of each activity may work best (resources for picture schedules are found at the bottom of this article.) Children with difficulty understanding language or speech may respond better to modeling and prompting of how to use the schedule a few times before it is implemented, rather than a verbal explanation.

To reinforce the schedule, acknowledge the child’s efforts when they follow the schedule (e.g., “great job with your schedule tonight”, “nice work following your schedule. “you were so responsible completing your schedule, etc.) Children with language difficulties may benefit from a visual or tangible reward rather than or paired with verbal acknowledgment.

For any child completing a schedule, you can tie motivational rewards to completion of the schedule. For example, you can tell the child that he can pick a special activity of his choice if he follows his schedule for a certain number of days. For a child with language difficulties, who may not understand that you are offering a reward after successful completion of the schedule for a certain number of days, just automatically reward him for following the schedule after reaching a predetermined goal. For example, if your child loves to play with shaving cream or jump on a trampoline, allow him to do this as a reward for appropriately utilizing the schedule. Point to the schedule with a smile or thumbs up when you reward him, to help him make the connection.

Make the goal realistic for the child. For a child with several problematic behaviors, one day of completing a schedule may be a huge accomplishment and worthy of a reward. For a child with less problematic behaviors, he may be able to go five days with successful schedule completion before getting a reward. As the child becomes more comfortable with his schedule, and is more successful at following the rules of the schedule or completing the schedule, you may be able to modify how often he earns his reward, with the ultimate goal of fading the reward out. See my article “How to Praise Your Kids” to have a better understanding of  the use of rewards and why they are not considered bribes for appropriate behavior.

Here are some behaviors to look for that may indicate a schedule will help:

-Significant Disorganization
-Trouble remembering or figuring out what he should be doing
-Frequently inattentive or off-task  behavior (for off-task students you can point to   or remind them of their schedule to redirect them back to task)
-Trouble knowing what to do without structure
-Oppositional or defiant behavior

Place the schedule somewhere the child can always see it. Laminating the schedule can help so it does not get ripped or crumpled.

I understand that for parents and teachers with several kids or with many additional responsibilities, a schedule may be hard to keep. Do the best you can, enforcing the rules as best as possible. If it doesn’t work for you or your child, that is okay. Not every behavioral strategy on this site will work for every child. These strategies are recommendations based what I have seen work for several children in my career and on research [e.g., Michael B. Ruef (1998) indicated that increasing predictability and scheduling and appreciating positive behavior promotes positive behavioral changes and Banda and Grimmett (2008), documented the positive effects schedules have on social and transition behaviors in individuals with autism.].

For more specific ideas to create a schedule using pictures and lamination, go to the Wise Market of and click on the “Behavior Support”  and “Informational Books” sections.

You can also find motivational charts in the “Behavior Support” section to use with successful completion of schedules. If you are looking for additional support with a child with challenging behaviors, I recommend reading the additional behavior articles of this blog or visiting the Digital Learning section of and checking out the available behavior support programs. You can also find the Autism Parents’ Guide: Parent’s Guide To Living With Autism Spectrum Disorders in the E-Learning section.

Any comments, suggestions, or concerns? Contact us.

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Thank you for reading! Stay tuned for more tips on learning and behavior!


2 thoughts on “How to Use Schedules for Behavior Support

  1. Pingback: How to Prevent and Handle Temper Tantrums | Wise Education and Behavior

  2. Pingback: How to Praise Your Kids | Wise Education and Behavior

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