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Implementing Independent Activity Schedules: 5 Easy Tips

Independent activity schedules are a widely used tool for learners with autism or other developmental disabilities. They are visual schedules consisting of picture or text representations of activities. The goal is for the learner to retrieve their schedule, complete each listed item, and clean up and put all materials away. These schedules can create structure during “down-times” in which we know learners with disabilities can sometimes struggle! Research shows that using activity schedules can also increase on-task behavior and decrease maladaptive behaviors in individuals with autism (Lequia et al, 2012). In this blog post, we will explore how to successfully implement independent activity schedules in an autism or other special education classroom. 

1. How to choose the right schedule for each learner:

There is no one size fits all when it comes to the format of an independent activity schedule! It is, however, crucial to consider your learner’s prerequisite skills. For example, if your student is a reader, written cues or strips may work well, to signal them as to what activities they should be retrieving. For non-readers, pictures are great visual cues. Even within picture representations, there are questions to consider, such as, can your learner match non-identical objects, or will the picture need to be a photo of the exact item they will be retrieving? The schedule itself may consist of a small binder and/ or a vertical list of pictures or written strips.

You want to choose the format in which your learner is MOST likely to succeed. For example, if they have some sight words, but are primarily a non-reader, begin with pictures first and see if you can transition to words later. If they struggle with basic picture matching, having them match numbered or colored squares is a great alternative. It is helpful to assess this component before incorporating it into an independent activity schedule: Simply place the picture or written cue on the student’s desk and say, “Do this.” If they can retrieve the correct item, you’ll know you have chosen a visual that works for them.

independent activity schedule picture Implementing Independent Activity Schedules: 5 Easy Tips
Example of a picture-based activity schedule.
independent activity schedule Implementing Independent Activity Schedules: 5 Easy Tips
Examples of text-based activity schedules.

2. How to choose activities:

Like the format, the types of activities will vary according to the learner and your goal of the independent activity schedule itself. In its basic definition, an independent activity schedule is:

“a type of visual support that provides permanent visual reminders of the order of events or tasks that occur in a given period of time. It describes when an activity will happen, when it will end, and what will occur after that” (Ganz, 2007).

In other words, you are creating a to-do list for your student. Remember that your ultimate goal is that the learner will be completing each and every step of the schedule independently. With this in mind, choosing activities becomes fairly simple: include only activities that your learner can already complete independently.

You can also choose between two types: open-ended and closed­ ended activities. Open-ended activities have no clear end time; whereas closed-ended activities have a very concrete beginning and end point.

Examples of closed-ended activities:

  • Puzzles
  • File folders
  • Word searches
  • Task boxes
  • Sorting activities

Examples of open-ended activities:

  • Drawing, coloring, or painting
  • Listening to music
  • Watching a video
  • Playing an iPad game
  • Playing with blocks or other stackable toys

Initially, focus only on closed-ended activities to make the schedule as easy as possible for your learner. If and when your student masters the concept of setting a timer, you can consider including open-ended activities with a clear time length such as a picture of the activity with a time length cue underneath. Make sure that your learner knows where ALL materials are kept, including the timer itself! Click to browse my favorite visual timer to use with independent activity schedules.

Copy of new blog square photos 1 Implementing Independent Activity Schedules: 5 Easy Tips
Click to browse my favorite visual timers to use
with independent activity schedules!

3. How to promote independence with activity schedules:

When teaching a student to complete an independent activity schedule, remember that the ultimate goal is 100% independence. A common mistake I made early on in my classroom was using too many verbal cues and prompts when teaching schedules. My earners became reliant on this, and then I couldn’t understand why they could complete their tasks with verbal cues, but not with picture cues. In reality, I had taught them to wait for my verbal instruction, and not to reference their schedule to tell them what to do nextI

If we wanted to verbally tell someone each task to complete, there would be no need for a visual schedule at all. Similarly, using verbal prompts such as, “Turn the page,” or “What’s next?” should sound like nails on a chalkboard to you. Ideally, you are not using A SINGLE verbal prompt throughout the entire teaching sequence. Otherwise, you are not teaching your learners to rely on the schedule itself to cue them to each activity.

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Non-verbal prompts can range from gestures (pointing to the schedule book, picture icon, activity, etc.) to physical (light guidance at the hand, wrist, or elbow to guide your learner toward the correct response). Use a consistent prompting strategy among all staff, such as waiting 3 seconds for the learner to respond, before inserting a prompt. Click to download free, printable prompt hierarchy visual cues to post in your classroom for consistency!

A​​s for when to use your prompts, research shows that graduated guidance (Spriggs et al., 2007) can be effective in teaching independent activity schedules. Graduated guidance refers to providing “the least amount of prompting that ensures the most amount of success.” In other words, if a learner responds equally to a gesture prompt and a physical prompt, err on the side of using a gesture over a physical prompt, because this is less intrusive, and will be easier to fade out. Remember that the more extraneous prompts we provide, the more likely it is our learners will become prompt dependent!

4. How to promote generalization in independent activity schedules:

When you begin implementing an independent activity schedule, ensure that the included activities are placed strategically. Typically, starting off by placing the activities in very close proximity to the learner (within 1-3 feet of the workstation if not actually on the workstation itself) will ensure initial success. After your student masters the skills of locating activities, putting them away, and continuing to navigating schedule until completion, you can then work on systematically fading the proximity of the activities (placing them a few feet further away or even
across the room) to expand their activity schedule routine.

Similarly, I always have my students learn to complete their schedule in the same location (such as their desk), before generalizing to have them complete their schedule from another location (such as a back table). From there, you can start to generalize even further, asking unfamiliar staff to present the initial cue, switching activities by day or week, and adding additional activities from locations within the classroom.

5. How to collect data in independent activity schedules:

The first step is to create a task analysis for your independent activity schedule. With a task analysis, you are taking a large skill and breaking it down into smaller, more manageable steps (Cooper et al., 2020). In doing so, you isolate each component to track which steps you need to prompt, and which the learner can already complete independently. It is helpful to collect initial baseline data and assess your learner’s initial knowledge BEFORE you begin teaching. Click to browse printable data sheets for independent activity schedules!

indep schedule data sheet Implementing Independent Activity Schedules: 5 Easy Tips

Baselining an activity schedule can be tricky, since if the learner errs on the first step, and you do not provide a prompt, you will be unable to gauge their skill level with the remaining steps. One tactic I use is to place the schedule in front of the learner for the first time and document their response for each component of the task analysis. For any specific steps the learner does not complete, I wait three seconds, (record a minus for that step) and then guide them to the next step so that I can continue collecting data on all remaining steps.

Finally, determine the mastery criteria you are looking for, such as 80% independence in all steps across 3 consecutive opportunities. This gives you a benchmark against which to monitor your learner’s progress. When choosing a mastery criterion, ensure that you are selecting something that reflects improvement but is also attainable and realistic.

Conclusion:

Implementing independent activity schedules in your classroom can create a structured routine for learners with autism or other developmental disabilities. Once you have identified the right schedule, activities, and data collection methods for your unique learners, monitor your data frequently to ensure adequate progress is being made, and/ or plan for revisions!

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