Student Schedules: An Overview


After you have built your master schedule and set up your classroom, you will need to figure out a way for the students to use a schedule to navigate his/her day. Remember that schedules are not a one-size-fits-all item—different students may need to access different types of schedule.

The goal of the schedule is to inform students about the different areas they will visit during that day. Once the student is in that area, the visual structure of the area and a mini-schedule/task list should give students more specific instruction on what they should be doing. For example, if a student’s schedule says ‘reading group,’ the student should know to go to the table in the back where reading group always is. Once there, the instructor should have some sort of visual showing the student exactly what he/she will complete in reading group for that day.

Some students can handle seeing the schedule for their entire day all at once. Other students need the schedule broken down into chunks—morning and afternoon, two or three items at a time followed by a preferred activity—it all depends on how much the student can handle at one time. I have had students who tend to perseverate on certain things if the activity is on their schedule, even if it isn’t until the very end of the day. For those students, breaking the schedule down in to chunks makes sense.

Different Types of Schedule

I have used different types of schedules. These are all low-tech versions. There are many great high-tech options at this point, but schedules are so important to some of my students that I find the low-tech versions to be more reliable (they never run out of batteries and they never crash). Additionally, many of my students struggle with using more than one application at a time and already rely on their device for communication.

These types of schedules are arranged from most concrete to most abstract. Make sure that the student is accessing a schedule that is at their level of mastery rather than at their instructional level. Students should be able to understand their schedule independently, even when anxious or frustrated.

  1. Object schedule-use a small object to represent an area of the classroom or building. For example, a spoon could indicate that it is time to go to the cafeteria, while an old wireless mouse could indicate that it is time for computer. These are great for students with vision impairments.
  2. Large pictures with small text-Pictures are the predominant feature on these schedule pieces, although a small line of text should be present to expose students with everyday words.
  3. Small pictures, larger text-Shrink text so it is the same size or larger than the picture to emphasize the word shape and encourage reading.
  4. Large icons with small text-Use an icon from Boardmaker, Symbolstix, etc. to represent an area of the building/classroom with small text.
  5. Small icon, larger text
  6. Text only—for students who have demonstrated mastery of all words that might be used on a classroom schedule. Don’t give a text only schedule to a student just because they can read all of the words—make sure that the student has also demonstrated mastery of what those words mean.

Some students will be able to look at their schedule and move to the correct location. Others may need a ‘time for ___________’ section and a ‘finished’ envelope. Still others may need to cross out items on their schedule as they go. Students who are beginning to use a schedule or who are easily distracted may need to carry the schedule piece/object to the location—if that is the case, you should have a spot to match the piece to or deposit the object.

How do I get students back to their schedules?

After you create a schedule, you still need to figure out how students should know when it is time to check the schedule. This can be individualized to students, but you also need to think about the best method for your classroom as a whole.

For example, if each student has their own areas for most items on their schedule and you have plenty of staff support, you have the luxury of being self-paced. However, if you have many shared locations, staff is a little tight, or you are at the mercy of a bell schedule, you will probably need to rely on a timer to keep everyone on the same page.

Here are a few methods that I have used to get students back to their schedules:

  • A card to indicate that it is time to check schedule-I usually use a computer print-out of the student’s first name to work on name recognition. Teach the student to travel to the schedule when handed his name, match the card to his schedule (name to name match), check his schedule, and travel to the next location. Alternatively, you can place the card at the end of his mini-schedule at the previous activity if you have the resources to be self-paced. The student will finish his/her work at a station, pick up the ‘check schedule’ card, and travel to his/her schedule.
  • A tone/timer-I use this most often to keep everyone on pace in the classroom. You will need to teach students to respond to the tone by either prompting from behind or pairing the ‘check schedule’ card with the tone for a period of time.
  • Rarely, I have a student who is so prompt dependent that I try to fade out both the check schedule card and the timer. I teach this student to look for cues in the environment that indicate that it is time to check his schedule (i.e. everyone else is checking the schedule, everyone else is eating snack, etc.)

Important things to remember

  • Students should be involved in making their schedule in some way. This can be achieved by having students physically construct the schedule using a template and Velcro pieces, students could choose the order of items on their schedule, they could type their schedule, etc.
  • Deviations from the students’ schedules should be done in a way that is fair to them. It is not correct that a student with classic autism needs to ‘learn’ to deal with things when they don’t go according to plan. This is unfair and disrespectful, tantamount to saying that a student with cerebral palsy needs to ‘learn’ to walk like a typical person! Instead, present changes from the schedule in a routine way (I use a ‘surprise’ card) and practice the surprises from time to time in a way that is tolerable and even enjoyable for the student. For example, I often deviate from our classroom schedule for a ‘surprise’ trip to a 7-eleven for a piece of candy or for a ‘surprise’ clip from a favorite movie. If you know of a change in the schedule in advance, dialogue with the student about the change and sit together while you change the schedule. Indicate to them how their day will be different. Rehearse the new schedule with the student several times, up to the point where his routine returns to ‘normal.’

Schedules are a crucial tool for students with classic autism. Teaching a student to independently follow a schedule can lead to increased independent living skills and even employment opportunities! An added side-benefit is that detailed classroom schedules help all adults in the classroom know where specific students are supposed to be—think about how much time and stress that will save you in the classroom!


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