Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Schoolhouse Strategy: Picture schedules

I work in many classrooms where picture schedules are used to help the students transition between activities throughout the day. Picture schedules are especially effective in helping students with autism spectrum disorders. I was talking with a teacher today, however, who was unsuccessful in convincing a regular education teacher to implement a picture schedule for a student during "inclusion" time in her class. Although most teachers in special education understand the value of using picture schedules when appropriate, I have been surprised in my visits to literally hundreds of different classrooms that picture schedules are not used more frequently to help small group activities run more smoothly.

As a music therapist I depend on the power of songs and music activities to structure events and actions across time. Typical songs have a beginning and end that act as placeholders in time, while the rhythm and tempo of a song may be considered the ticking of time as it passes. Familiar songs can therefore provide a predictable framework that helps students with disabilities to pace themselves. Students with autism, for example, can better understand what is expected through these musical cues so that they can focus their attention and manage their behaviors for a predictable amount of time.

The intrinsic power of songs and music activities to provide structure minimizes the amount of undesirable behavior that occurs during a music therapy session. I have found, however, that using a picture schedule in certain instances has helped tremendously during transitions between songs as well as providing visual cues for appropriate behavior during songs and activities. I often employ a picture schedule comprised of seven to ten pictures that represent each song or activity in the session. In my experience, the clients are able to learn the schedule after only a few sessions. Although some of the songs change from week to week, the pictures remain the same, so the students know at any given time where they are in the session time line and what is expected of them. As a supervisor, I have frequently suggested to my therapists that they begin using a picture schedule to help some of their sessions run more smoothly. They have often been amazed at how effective such a simple tool can be.

One final note on the subject would be that I advise using pictures with word labels. Social stories, for example, are often very effective in helping children with autism to pattern a behavior. There is power in reading a word. The word-picture combination is a more effective format for the picture schedule.

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