This idea came from my sister-in-law. She has three kids, including one with autism. She and her husband have done a mighty job of finding help for their son, and ideas for how to get him through his day. When I first started down the threenager path with my oldest child, I knew my sister-in-law could help me eliminate some of the weeds in my parenting and get on a more successful path with my kids.
One day, a gear changed, and my son wanted to do everything himself, including running the house and driving the car. We were always late, with his clothes on backward and unbuttoned. We were all harried and frustrated. My sister-in-law suggested putting together a chart with pictures of my son’s daily routine, in order: wake-up (sun), go potty (underwear), eat breakfast (toast in toaster), etc.
That night, I played around on the computer, downloading fonts and creating the chart that I wanted. (My sister-in-law assured me that I could just draw everything, but I imitated one I found on the blog Listening in the Litany. It is made of square pieces of paper, which are secured with clothespins to a ribbon pinned to a wall, so we can move the squares around.) We printed and laminated it at the local office supply store. We don’t use it every day, but when we do, it says to my son, “See? It’s out of Mom’s hands. This is just how the day goes.” We even have one by the door to help us get ready to go out.
I talked to Katherine McCalla, a psychologist at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, about why visual aids work so well not just for kids with autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but for all kids.
“One of the things we know about children with autism is that many of them have stronger visual learning skills. They can learn better when they see something than when they hear it,” McCalla says. “Visual supports are more permanent. If you just say, ‘Go get your shoes,’ that is gone in two seconds,” she says. Pointing to a chart helps get a child’s attention, it seems, and curbs nagging. And it’s important, McCalla says, to talk about disobedience — what happened, why and how it can better be handled next time — soon after an episode.
My sister-in-law also suggested that we write down our expectations for behavior and the consequences for not meeting them. I ordered Doorposts’ If-Then Chart and the Blessing Chart, which you can write on with an erasable marker. (The behaviors are backed up with Bible verses, but if that bothers you, you can design one similar to it without the verses.) I sat down with my husband for a couple of hours to debate which actions merited which discipline and rewards.
The charts identify the behaviors we’re trying to modify and encourage so we’re not just swatting away the small things that annoy us. For example, when my son is cheerful, he gets a happy-face sticker to display prominently. When he argues and complains, he gets time to sit on his bed and adjust his attitude. We talk a lot about obedience, diligence, cheerfulness and reverence. I know they’re big words for a 3-year-old, but I think he gets the concepts, and I hope he’ll grow into them and carry them with him for the rest of his life. Just like the visual schedules, these charts tell my son the rules are not arbitrary.
The charts help parents, too. Now, when I’m weary and prone to impatience and irritation, I can instead be unemotional and go back to the charts. I point my son daily to the behaviors we want him to have as he grows up.
“Having to create these structured routines makes everybody get on the same page,” McCalla says. “And it brings stability and consistency. If you know that there are five things you need to do to get out the door, you are less likely to surprise a kid with two more things.”
Another way to use visuals is to plan for one special thing you’re going to do with the kids each day. I got this idea from Jamie Reimer’s website Hands On As We Grow. This stay-at-home mom of three boys found that she wasn’t always engaged and present, so she started planning simple activities for each day. These are ideas as simple as cutting straws into sections and making a necklace on yarn, lining up a road for toy cars on the floor with painter’s tape, and going for a family bike ride. The point is to be prepared for those moments you can grab and invest yourself in your children.
I have a weekly planner on the fridge that I use for our activities, which also include trips to the library on Mondays and baking cookies on Fridays.
McCalla says that visual supports can transition from pictures to written instructions. “It’s the same concept we all use,” she says. “We have a calendar that tells us when we’re supposed to be where.”
No matter what area of child growth or parenting you want to address, writing things out should be part of the battle plan. Have trouble getting your kids dressed in the morning? I saw a great idea on the Better Homes & Gardens website to take a hanging five-shelf organizer and stamp the letters of the week on the back of the cubes. Sit down with (or without) your kids and put together outfits for the week. For older kids who can read and want to know what’s for dinner on Thursday, try a fun magnetic menu board from ala Board. Parents magazine has age-appropriate charts or Melissa & Doug offers a magnetic responsibility chart. I’ve also seen a cute idea with two jars and Popsicle sticks with chores — sticks move from one jar to another as the child completes daily or weekly tasks.
Let me put a healthy disclaimer at the end here. It’s important to go slowly as you create these plans and to cut yourself slack for holidays, travel, sickness. Build each routine until it becomes a habit before you move on to the next.
And one last suggestion from McCalla: If you’ve tried versions of these ideas and your children are still struggling to follow instructions or complete daily routines, or if they’re experiencing a lot of difficulty with tantrums, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help.
Let’s be realistic: Walls covered in charts won’t remedy every parenting problem. But this strategy has been one part of finding some domestic peace for us, and I hope it will be for you, too.
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