Using Visual Schedules to Teach On-Task Behavior

Children with autism often learn in a different way than other children. They frequently struggle learning through traditional group instruction, especially in a classroom setting. Frequent concerns with low attention to topics not of particular interest make it challenging for children to participate in play with peers, complete chores, or attend to academic tasks. Visual schedules help with these challenges.

Many people, including those without autism, benefit from visual schedules including calendars and lists. As a professional working with children with autism, learning how and when to use visual schedules is an important tool for keeping children on-task.

How Visual Schedules Help On-task Behavior

Constantly reminding children to stay on-task leaves adults nagging children. This leads to an increase in challenging behavior unnecessarily. Many children want to be more independent yet lack the executive functioning skills to stay sufficiently organized and on-task without help.

Children who learn to independently use visual schedules to stay on-task build this independence. Teach children to prioritize important tasks, to set a timer, or to follow a sequence even when they don’t want to do a particular task. Include a system to reinforce on-task behavior. Through this process, even highly distracted children can complete a significantly larger number of tasks than without this tool.

When to Use Visual Schedules for On-task Behavior

Should all children use a visual schedule? The short answer is that most children (and adults) with or without disabilities benefit from some form of structure and schedule. Many schools require all children to keep assignments in an agenda that is essentially a calendar which is…you guessed it..a schedule.

Schedules come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes to meet the unique needs of the individual. What’s important for most individuals with autism is that the schedule visually represent the activity and expectations. Most individuals with autism (and many individuals without autism) are visual learners. Using a visual schedule helps these learners become more organized and better prepared to meet expectations.

Use schedules when the child you’re working with struggles with staying organized or is having trouble with transitions or changes to routines. Introduce schedules when you find yourself repeating instructions or expectations more than you would for other children.

For many children, schedules should not be just an intervention to correct problem behavior, but a lifelong skill to help with organization and self-management as the child grows to be an adult. Do you use a schedule? How about a daily, weekly, or monthly planner? These are all types of schedules that you use to help you. If you need these tools, don’t you think your children can benefit from learning to use them?

For children who struggle with staying on-task, schedules can be the prompt they need to achieve success. Make sure that your expectations are developmentally appropriate for your client. Use visual schedules for on-task behavior when the child you work with:

  • Is easily distracted
  • Moves quickly between activities
  • Resists completing tasks that are non-preferred
  • Struggles to get or stay organized
  • Needs frequent reminders
  • Doesn’t prioritize tasks well

Types of Visual Schedules

By the term “visual” schedule I don’t mean that the schedule must contain pictures. The schedule might include a written list of activities to complete in a sequence. For individuals who successfully complete routine activities without a schedule, you might choose a planner that shows a week or a month view to assist with non-routine activities like appointments or other changes to the usual routine.

Some children need a simple schedule that shows just what the demand is followed by something they want (often referred to as a first/then board). Other children benefit from seeing a longer series of activities they need to complete.

For young children who don’t read, pictures work best. Some children respond best to photographs, others need the clearer line-drawn images from a program such as Boardmaker or an alternative program. If you don’t have access to the technology to make these images, some children benefit from your own line drawings on a dry erase board.

Watch this video example of using the scheduling app Choiceworks to help a learner engage in activities:

Teaching Independence with Visual Schedules

As with teaching any skill, you need a plan for teaching your client to use schedules independently. Don’t assume independence will magically develop or that a child needs help with a schedule forever. Many children can learn to not only follow a schedule, but create their own schedule when given the tools.

Break the skill down into teachable components. It’s generally best to teach the child to use the schedule to transition between activities. Teach the child to move the icon from the “to-do” part of the schedule to an “all done” part (either a separate column, the back of the schedule or a separate done container). Gradually, you can teach the child to build the schedule by adding icons to the “to-do” part.

Make sure that you plan for reinforcement. Many children, especially children with autism, need reinforcement other than the satisfaction of completing a task or social praise. Identify potential reinforcers by conducting a preference assessment. Use a schedule of reinforcement consistent with each child’s specific needs. Learn more about reinforcement by reading our posts 5 Ways to Use the Premack Principle You Haven’t Tried and Differential Reinforcement.

Tools for Making Visual Schedules

The tools you need to create your visual schedules varies dramatically depending on the needs and abilities of your client. Some children who read need only a piece of paper and a pencil to create their schedule. If you can make some basic line drawings, you can use these tools for creating simple pictures on the fly.

When working with young children or children who respond best to pictures, you may need access to some form of technology. Many of the images you need you can find on Google images. Simply copy them into a Word document and resize them (usually around 1 1/2 inches square is an ideal size). Print them, cut them out, then laminate them. Add a bit of hook and loop fastener and you are ready to go.

If you have at least a small budget, you can make this project a lot faster by buying a subscription to different image making programs. Boardmaker is one of the most familiar and user-friendly programs on the market, but it comes with a slightly higher price tag ($99/year). Boardmaker allows you to add pictures right from Google images making it quick and easy to create any of the images you need.

Alternative programs are emerging, but they are a bit more cumbersome to use. offers access to over 40,000 images for $36/year. There are fun things you can create with this program, but you need to take some time to learn how to use the program. offers a subscription-based service and access to over 21,000 images for $45/year. With this program you must download the images and add them to another program (i.e. PowerPoint, Keynote) in order to create the images.

Scheduling Apps

Many apps are available to help you create schedules in the moment. These apps usually have some stock images available as well as the ability to add your own images through the camera function on your tablet or phone. Each app offers different features and many are only available for specific markets (i.e. iOS, Android, etc.).

My all-time favorite scheduling app is sadly only available for the iOS market. Check out Choiceworks. It’s well worth the $6.99 price tag as it will save you hundreds of dollars of materials trying to make the images by hand. You can create schedules in minutes, easily make changes, and add a timer to each activity (a feature that’s not commonly available).

Shopping list

If you are going to create reusable schedules yourself, there are a few things you will need. The products below are a great deal on Amazon and will be delivered to you in a matter of days:

Learn More

Check out these research articles to learn more about using schedules to help your clients with autism:

MacDuff, G. S., Krantz, P. J., & McClannahan, L. E. (1993). Teaching children with autism to use photographic activity schedules: Maintenance and generalization of complex response chainsJournal of applied Behavior analysis26(1), 89-97.

Cramer, M., Hirano, S. H., Tentori, M., Yeganyan, M. T., & Hayes, G. R. (2011, May). Classroom-based assistive technology: collective use of interactive visual schedules by students with autism. In CHI (Vol. 11, pp. 1-10).

Dettmer, S., Simpson, R. L., Myles, B. S., & Ganz, J. B. (2000). The use of visual supports to facilitate transitions of students with autismFocus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities15(3), 163-169.

Spriggs, A. D., Gast, D. L., & Ayres, K. M. (2007). Using picture activity schedule books to increase on-schedule and on-task behaviorsEducation and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 209-223.