I’ve been using visual schedules in my Sensory Storytime programming for years. It’s a tip I gathered by observing teachers working with special education students in their classrooms. During my classroom observation, I listened as the teacher directed the students through each activity on the large group schedule, using “First… Then…” language. Each student had their own individual group schedule, which replicated the large group schedule on the board. As the group completed each activity, the teacher would return to the large group schedule at the front of the room, remove the visual pertaining to the completed activity, and then direct the students to the next activity. Each student then replicated this on their own individual schedule.
Working with those special education teachers, who mentored me in my very first Sensory Storytime, I learned how to create visuals and adapt my technique incorporating this practice into my storytime. I quickly realized visual schedules are effective learning tools not just for children with disabilities, but for all children. As I continue to expand my understanding and knowledge about topics of inclusion and accessibility in libraries, I realize now that visual schedules are, in fact, examples of universal design and a best practice for making all storytimes inclusive.
For Children with Autism
There are many reasons to utilize visual schedules during library programs with children with disabilities, particularly with those who have autism spectrum disorder. For example, visual schedules address those individuals who are visual learners and communicators. They can help increase confidence, decrease anxiety, and boost self esteem by allowing the child to anticipate what is coming next. Visual schedules also provide structure by listing activities in the particular sequence for those who prefer predictable environments and routine. Visuals can be helpful in supporting positive transitions between activities, too.
For Deaf Children or Children with Hearing Loss
Just as visual schedules are useful for autistic children, visual schedules can provide support to deaf children and those who experience hearing loss. Vision plays an important role in the development of language and literacy skills for deaf and hard of hearing children, as many are visual learners as well. When information is presented visually, deaf and hard of hearing children will be more successful in interpreting, speech-reading, or captioning in their learning. This is because visuals provide concrete representations of a word or concept. In addition, pointing to the visuals on the group schedule allows deaf and hard of hearing children to follow along more easily with what’s being presented and the activities in their sequence, rather than having to rely solely on an interpreter for information.
For Beginning Readers
Visual schedules are excellent tools for supporting early literacy during children’s programming at the library. The Boardmaker visuals I incorporate into my programming are paired with a word or a short phrase with each picture. This communicates and translates the picture for visual learners, while providing opportunities for children to be exposed to print text, acquire sight word knowledge, and even learn new vocabulary. When I talk through the large group schedule at the beginning of the program and refer to it again between each activity, I use spoken language to reinforce the printed word on the visual. This helps reinforce meaning, while also supporting phonological awareness.
For English Language Learning Parents & Caregivers
Parents and caregivers play a crucial role in their child’s life as their child’s very first teacher. If our children’s programs are presented in English, however, they may not be accessible to all parents and caregivers, as some may not be able to speak, read, or understand English. We need to be intentional in the design of our programs to help support positive interaction between child and caregiver during their time at our libraries. Visual schedules help do that. By using photos and symbols to communicate the sequence of activities in a program, we can guide parents and caregivers through the program. Visual schedules can also be an effective teaching tool to use when speaking to a group of parents or caregivers unfamiliar with storytime. Using a visual schedule, librarians can talk parents and caregivers through the activities that they would do with their children in the program. This helps introduce the concept of a storytime to parents and caregivers, building their confidence and awareness about library programs.
Think about how often we rely on visual cues to support daily activities: bathroom signs, maps, exit signs, street signs, even the assembly instructions for new IKEA furniture. Each day, we encounter photographs, symbols, animations, videos, objects, graphs, and drawings that help us understand meaning quickly and easily without relying on text. Visuals are often used at large sporting events, such as the World Cup, or at large transportation centers, such as international airports, to inform and guide people that may not speak or read the same language. Why not incorporate the same principles into our children’s programming? Visual schedules can be a positive support that allows everyone to feel welcome.