Activity Schedules – Strategies for Creating and Teaching


  • Discuss individuals who would potentially benefit from visual activity schedules
  • Review how to design and implement an activity schedule
  • Review several variations of activity schedules to use for different purposes

Learner Profiles: Who Benefits from Activity Schedules

Several scenarios provided below that will reveal a few different learner profiles

Scenario One: Lliam lies on his back and gazes at the rotating ceiling fan. He is surrounded by toys and games that he has learned to play, but seldom does so on his own.

This is a very common scenario among those with developmental disabilities or with ASD, where there is a wide variety of skills that have been learned however that initiation piece or that self-engagement piece can be lacking. So just because a learner has been taught how to play does not mean that they will initiate this behavior on their own.

Scenario Two: Abigail is told to go to the bathroom to wash her hands. Several minutes later her mother finds her sitting on the counter making faces into the mirror with the water running.

Here we have a learner who has learned how to wash their hands but do to environmental distractions is unable to complete the task independently.

Scenario Three: Juan becomes agitated during transitions to new activities. He is especially resistant to leaving the classroom although he typically enjoys himself once he gets to his new location.

Transitions can be very difficult for some individuals, specifically individuals with ASD or other developmental disabilities.

So what do these three scenarios have in common?

They would all benefit from an activity schedule!

Activity schedules could each be used for these learners in different ways.

Individuals that may Benefit from an Activity Schedule may have:

  • Difficulty engaging in appropriate undirected activities
  • Difficulty transitioning into new activities
  • Limited play/leisure skills
  • Limited ability to make appropriate play choices
  • Difficulty following 2-3 step instructions
  • Difficulty processing vocal language
  • Difficulty staying on task

Purpose of Activity Schedules

  • Activity Schedules help teach learners to engage in a sequence of self-directed activities
  • They increase independence and reduce the need for adult supervision
  • They provide learners with information regarding the events in the day and what is to be expected
  • They increase opportunities for choice-making and initiation
  • They promote social interactions

What is an Activity Schedule?

An activity schedule can be a wide variety of things and look like a wide variety of things. However, it is ultimately a visual representation of information. A set of pictures, icons, words, or other visual stimuli which represent a sequence of responses that comprise a chain.

In some instances an activity schedule may represent one thing. One activity. One game. Or one task. Or one event. In other instances an activity schedule may represent a series of things.

Within an activity schedule each step in the schedule acts as the SD (instruction) for the learner to engage in next corresponding behavior. The completion of the sequence results in positive reinforcement.

Areas of Need

(An Incomplete List)

Self-Help: Activity schedules can be used to teach adaptive/self-help skills.

  • Basic sequences (e.g., hand-washing, teeth brushing, getting dressed)
  • Chores (e.g., making bed, picking up toys)
  • Community Safety (e.g., crossing the street, stranger danger, getting lost)

Play Skill: Activity schedules can be used to teach play skills.

  • Independent
  • Imaginative
  • Cooperative

Social Interaction: Activity schedules can be used to teach social interaction

  • Conversation skills
  • Social etiquette
  • Seeking assistance from others

Academics: Activity schedules can be used to teach academic skills

  • Classroom routines
  • Independent work
  • Homework

Vocational Skills: Activity schedules can be used to teach vocational skills.

  • Advanced chores (e.g., cooking, cleaning, etc.)
  • Community Outings (e.g., shopping for groceries, clothes, etc)
  • Location/setting-specific

Types of Activity Schedules

  • Single activity schedule
  • Multiple activity schedule
  • Daily schedule
  • Weekly schedule
  • Monthly

We can be as detailed as we need for a single activity or scale back and become more broad with a multiple activity, and likewise further detailed with a daily and then again less detailed with a weekly or a monthly.

Pre-requisite Skills

  • The BCBA will determine if an activity schedule is appropriate for a learner
  • Some of the skills that the BCBA will look at when considering introducing an activity schedule will include:
    • Compliance Skills: can the learner follow rules, directions, instructions)
    • Fine and Gross motor Skills: can they perform the skill and can they physically/intellectually use the activity schedule
    • Matching Skills: can the learner identify that the picture of the toothbrush is the same as the toothbrush in the bathroom, etc. 3D to 3D and 2D to 3D, identical versus similar
    • Familiarity with Materials/Activities Within the Sequence: is the learner familiar enough with the materials activities in the sequence to engage with the schedule independently
  • These prerequisite skills may facilitate a learner’s successful acquisition of an activity schedule.

Some or all of these skills may be present but they will definitely help a learner when navigating and using an activity schedule and the amount of success and how quickly they succeed in using an activity schedule.

Preparation of Materials

While the BCBA is responsible for designing the activity schedule the RBT may be asked to assist with the preparation of materials.

  • The presentation of the activity schedule is vital to ensure the learner’s success. Everything from what materials that are used to the actual design of the schedule, to the way the information is laid out within the schedule is vital to the learner’s ability to use the schedule and ultimately succeed.
  • Depending on the individual’s skill level, the schedule may consist of:
    • Icons
    • Photographs
    • Words
    • Pictures with words
    • 3D items
  • When determining what type of materials to use the BCBA will take into consideration the following characteristics of the learner:
    • Ability to match/discriminate pictures, icons, words
    • Ability to comprehend icons/words
    • Ability to grasp and manipulate small items
  • If the RBT/Therapist is asked to help prepare the activity schedule it will be important to get clear and specific instructions from the BCBA regarding the materials and layout.

Activity Schedule Designs May Include:

  • Poster with icons/pictures arranged either vertically or horizontally

  • Activity Book

  • Written Lists

  • Stimuli Keyring

  • Shelves/Play bins

Further Considerations in Choosing Activity Schedule Design

  • Will the activity/steps on the schedule be stable or change? Can the icons be rigid or do they need to be removable?
  • Will the activity/steps occur in one location or many? Does the schedule need to be portable? Also discretion should be considered so as not to make the learner conspicuous in public settings.
  • Will the RBT create the schedule or will the client? Initially, this is something that the RBT will do, they will create them, put them in place. However, eventually we want the learner to eventually be able to determine their own schedule and their own downtime.

Setting up the Schedule

Once the RBT has worked with the BCBA to decide upon the materials it is time to set up the activity schedule by doing the following:

  • Select a sequence: Select a sequence that is meaningful and relevant to the learner. Will it help the learner become more independent or successful? Too, we will often take family considerations and priorities into consideration. And is this skill reasonable to achieve given the students current potential? And finally, is this a useful skill, that the learner will use frequently?
  • Determine the steps in the sequence (i.e., task analysis): Break down the sequence into all the small steps to perform that skill. Caregiver input is considered here as well because different homes do things differently.
  • Select the order and sequence of steps to be targeted as part of the chain: some learners need to be as detailed as possible and others require less detail. How this step is conducted is dependent largely upon the abilities of the specific child and skill being targeted. This includes making sure there are an appropriate number of steps to be completed according to a learner’s skill level. And lastly, consider if the schedule includes only task completion activities or open-ended tasks.

Any steps that are unfamiliar to a learner need to be pre-taught  (all of which is determined by the BCBA)

  • Select an environment: In other words, where should the learner be conducting the skill. Preferably and logically in the environment where it would naturally occur would be ideal. In situations where that is impossible, use best judgement and next best solution. In addition to logic, is more logic. Remove as many distractions from the environment as possible, objects that simply do not need to be there in the beginning stages of learning… that being said bringing distractions back in as the learner progresses is rather the natural progression in generalization of that skill. And while we are speaking logic. Make sure the learner has access (easily so) to the items needed to complete the activity schedule.
  • Conduct a reinforcement assessment. Knowing what is going to motivate the learner to complete the task activity is critical to success. In the beginning while teaching the activity schedule it may be necessary to reinforce the learner after every single step (and these should be small reinforcements), eventually though this should be faded out, and the learner can complete multiple steps or even the entire sequence before receiving reinforcement. Here the BCBA needs to determine reinforcing activities or items which can be earned at the completion of the schedule (the bigger reinforcement).

*Pretty much all of the above is determined by the BCBA the RBT acts as an assist.

Teaching the Activity Schedule

Now everything is in place. Everything has been decided, planned and prepared. It is time to teach.

Teaching Procedures:

Step 1 Arrange schedule: Schedule can initially be prepared by the RBT, but eventually the learner can arrange their own schedule (that is the goal!)

  • The schedule should be arranged so that the final step/activity leads to reinforcement
  • If the schedule incorporates multiple activities, alternate more highly preferred activities with less preferred activities within the schedule

Step 2 Give initial instruction: All dependent upon the learner and what stage of independence they are at

  • The instruction can be very specific “wash your hands”, “start your work”, “go to your schedule”, or
  • The instruction can be very generic “what should you do now?”,

Step 3 Implement prompting/fading procedures: Like step 2. Entirely dependent upon the stage the learner is in. The BCBA will determine which of the three below techniques should be used.

Total Task Presentation: In total task presentation the learner is walked through the entire chain from beginning to end. Steps that they can perform independently are allowed to be performed independently. For other steps prompts are added and faded as needed.

Forward Chaining: In forward chaining the first step is presented to the learner and the learner is walked through that step. The RBT than completes the remaining steps for the learner. Over subsequent trials more and more steps are added for the learner to complete in sequential order.

Backward Chaining: Similar to forward chaining, except this time the RBT is completing the initial steps for the learner and allowing the learner to complete the last step with assistance. Over subsequent trials more and more steps are added for the learner to complete in reverse order.

An additional prompt procedure…

McClannahan and Krantz (1999) : Critical, is that the physical presence of the trainer/adult is behind the learner, which eliminates the potential for the learner to become dependent on cues from the trainer and allows for easier fading of the trainer away from the environment.

One: Graduated guidance – first full physical guidance of task then to…
Two: Spatial fading – then from hand over hand, to wrist, to elbow, to shoulder, to…
Three: Shadowing – therapist shadows the learner but does not help the learner unless needed
Four: Fading physical proximity – slowly the therapist puts space between themselves and the learner so the learner can achieve full independence

Step 4 Deliver appropriate reinforcement: It is up to the BCBA to indicate the type and frequency of reinforcement to be implemented.

  • Immediate and/or frequent reinforcement may be necessary at first
  • Reinforcement should be faded until it occurs only upon completion of the sequence/part of the end of the sequence
  • Adult delivered versus self-delivered, initially it will likely be the adult however the goal would be towards moving that reinforcement to the learner
  • Primary (edible) or secondary reinforcers? It’s a goal to use a secondary reinforcer over a primary reinforcer and further to use a natural reinforcer over a secondary reinforcer.

Advanced Options

  • Once the learner is able to consistently follow an activity schedule independently, the BCBA may decide it is appropriate to teach more advanced applications:
    • Expanding time/number of steps
    • Individual participation in schedule set-up
    • Incorporating open-ended activities
    • Using timer
    • Fading of pictures/icons to words
    • Incorporating social interactions/cooperative activities
    • Teaching flexibility and tolerance to change in schedules

Data Collection

As per usual, the BCBA will determine what type of data should be collected.

  • A common data collection option includes:
    • A task analysis grid (responses recorded as correct, incorrect or prompt -or specific prompt used)

Fading Activity Schedules

After the learner becomes proficient at following activity schedules and has learned various routines, the BCBA may determine that it is appropriate to fade the presence of the schedule, example: self-help, play, and academic schedules (weekly, monthly schedules may still apply as they are useful for future planning and forecasting).

In Backward Chaining: As the learner becomes proficient, the RBT begins to “remove” icons. Starting with the last step and so on until the activity schedule literally “disappears”.

Preview and Recall: Allow the learner to review the sequence prior to starting and teach them to recall the steps without the presence of the visual stimuli.

Reduction of Visual/Physical stimuli: Literally to make them smaller and reduce the obtrusiveness of the schedule and/or reduce the steps in the sequence.

Use of Socially Common Materials: Using a day planner, journal, or other scheduling method typically used by the learners peers.

Additional Considerations

  • Activity schedules should not be used for individuals who do not require them
  • Build flexibility into activity schedules if appropriate
  • Make activity schedules as discrete as possible (especially if it is in the community, at school or in front of peers)

Additional References for Further Reading

Learn More…

Supporting Clients in a School Setting

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