Using Visual Timetable Cards to Reinforce Routines


Jul 28, 2015


Icons from the Noun Project (Mungang Kim; Scott Lewis; Ainsley Wagoner)

One of the best things about having a child with special needs is that you become more organised. All children thrive on order and structure, but kids with special needs demand it. So, if you are that free-spirit parent – the one who loves long, lazy weekends with no set schedules, eats meals whenever the mood strikes, doesn’t mind stuff strewn all over the house, returns nothing to its proper place and never, ever does anything on time – get ready. Your child is about to straighten you out, with the help of a visual timetable.

Children are the original conservatives. They dislike change. They love routine. They adore the predictable. If they enjoy a particular bedtime story, they will want to hear the same one, over and over and over, night after night after night, without a single word altered.

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Young children also do not fully understand the concept of time, so minutes and hours are arbitrary ideas to them. Three minutes can be an eternity if they have to wait for something; an hour feels like seconds when they are playing a game they don’t want to stop. Trying to get them to follow a time-bound schedule will be impossible. What makes sense to them are activities that occur in a certain order, when things follow another in a predictable way.

In a world where things are constantly happening to them, where grown-ups make all the decisions and where much that is mysterious and even frightening occurs, a predictable routine helps children feel secure. When you provide an environment that feels safe, your child will develop trust and confidence; that, in turn, gives her the freedom to explore her world and to learn and grow.

For children with special needs, a predictable routine is even more important than it is for a typical child. At the same time, however, it’s more difficult for parents to provide. Children with developmental delays have short attention spans and limited cognitive understanding. Telling them that they can have dessert after they wash their hands and after they eat their lunch is more likely to result in a tantrum than in cooperation.

So, you need to anticipate problems before they occur and head them off. Basically, you need to be just a little smarter than your kid.

I run a foundation for children with special needs in Dehradun. We have more than 250 students enrolled and many parents find it hard to believe that their kids are so well-behaved with us.

“He never acts like that at home,” one mom told us recently. “Whenever I tell him to do something, he does just the opposite. What am I doing wrong?”

Here’s the thing. We don’t tell children what to do—the visual timetable does.

At the Latika Roy Foundation, each teacher has a visual timetable for classroom use. These visual timetable cards list, in pictorial form, the day’s activities. For instance:

Images courtesy of the Noun Project






Each word is written in Hindi, but the more important thing is the picture that accompanies the word. Most of our children are non-readers, but almost all of them can identify pictures. Seeing the day’s schedule set out in progression on visual timetable cards helps them manage their time, control their impatience, and accept both endings and transitions.

So, a child who is very eager for tiffin time may disrupt the maths class by banging on the table, pulling out his lunch box or poking other children. But his teacher very calmly points to the visual timetable and says, “Vivek wants to eat his tiffin, right? But see what the timetable says? First, we have to finish maths (she points to the maths picture), then we wash our hands (points to the hand washing picture), THEN we eat our tiffins (points to the tiffin). Right, Vivek?”

Nine times out of 10, Vivek agrees. He calms down and waits patiently.

A teacher updates the timetable at the Latika Roy Foundation. [ERIN STEIGERWALT]
A teacher updates the timetable at the Latika Roy Foundation. [Photo by Erin Steigerwalt]
The visual timetable has an objective, calm authority that children seem to accept more easily than an adult’s simply saying so. The timetable also conveys respect for children; it says they have a right to know what is happening, both now and in the future. Knowing what to expect makes us feel like we have some element of control. Don’t we all find waiting at a red light easier when there is a timer that counts down the seconds until it turns green? Don’t we all resent those endless waits in airports when a flight has been delayed and no one is telling us what’s going on?

Transitions are challenging for a child with a disability and especially for a child with autism. Visual timetables for special needs kids helps them prepare for the next activity calmly and matter-of-factly: It’s there, from the start of the day, and so, when the assembly ends and storytime begins, it’s not a surprise. The child has seen it coming for hours.

The visual timetable also helps children accept the end of activities they enjoy. As each session comes to a close, the teacher removes the picture and puts it into an envelope. While removing it, she reinforces her action with words: “Now music class is FINISHED!” If a child resists putting away the musical instruments, she points to the empty space on the timetable and says, “Look, Anjali. Music class is over now!”

Visual timetable cards can be simple or elaborate, depending on your child’s needs. If your child is very young or has limited cognitive ability, don’t try to include the entire day’s schedule in one go; display just the morning’s activities first. When those are completed, put up the afternoon’s, and so on. Use either a bulletin board or a long Velcro strip for the display. You can order pictures online or make them yourself, either with hand drawings or photographs. (I suggest you get visual timetable cards laminated for durability.)

Visual timetable cards are a wonderful, practical way to help children make sense of a demanding, complex world. They were designed for kids with special needs, but their real beauty is that they make life better for all children.


Written By Jo Chopra

Jo Chopra McGowan is an American by birth and a writer by profession. She is a former criminal (peace movement/anti-abortion activist jailed in America on a dozen occasions), a mother of three, and has lived in India for the past 33 years with her Indian husband, saas, masiji and assorted other joint family-wallas.

She is a co-founder and director of the Latika Roy Foundation, a voluntary organization in Dehradun for children with disability. She also trained as a lay midwife, is amusingly fluent in Hindi, and loves public speaking, opera, photography, reading, cooking and wine.


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