The Value of a Detailed School Schedule
By Jayne Dixon Weber
During the COVID-19 response, school schedules may look at little different everywhere, but we want to provide ideas that you can use at school as well as adapt at home. See all our COVID-19 articles and resources here.
When we saw an increase in my son’s aggressive behavior during his middle school years, his teacher and I worked long and hard on a detailed schedule to help manage it. We had done a functional behavior assessment and knew the reasons for the behavior — it was his way of communicating that the work was too hard or too much, and the environment was overwhelming.
The focus of this article is the schedule we developed during Ian’s 8th grade, but a variation of it was used all through high school.
Ian attended a public middle school of about 350 children. Our district provides special education for children in two ways, based on the level of help they need throughout the school day:
- Resource: Occasional.
- Life Skills: Frequent.
Life Skills students either stay in their own class all day or are included in typical classes with aide support. My son was based in a Life Skills classroom and, with the exception of reading and math, was included in typical classes through the day.
When we developed my son’s daily schedule, we alternated between gross and fine motor activities. When Ian arrived at school, he would go into the Life Skills classroom before his first-period class and choose a gross motor activity: bouncing on a therapy ball, swinging, rocking, or jumping on a mini-trampoline. A visual schedule for the day was also reviewed with him. Here was his schedule, with each period lasting about 40 minutes:
As with most kids with Fragile X syndrome, 40 minutes was a long time for my son to stay on task. Twenty minutes was about the most we could expect. After that, his aggressiveness escalated, so we knew we had to vary each lesson and keep it moving.
We broke reading down into two 20-minute halves. The plan was to have the first half be fine motor/academic and the second half gross motor/sensory. For the first half, Ian had to complete three activities, after which he would get to do a gross motor activity. Our thoughts behind this:
- Ian understood how many “three” were, and it was not an overwhelming number for him.
- Teachers could easily enough come up with three activities that could be completed in the 20 minutes.
- The activities would be chosen ahead of time so Ian knew or had a good idea what they would be.
- In each activity there would be a combination of familiar and new — so part of it was easy and part was challenging.
- The gross motor activity would be a motivator.
The crucial consideration was that reading had to be done on a 1:1 basis—not small group. It was often done by an aide, but under the instruction of a teacher. It also had to be done in a quiet room with no distractions, including sights, sounds, smells, and textures. Here is a detailed example of the approach:
- Big Picture: The aide would state what was going to happen for the whole period, “We are going to do three activities, then we will go to the office to do work.” (Or whatever activity had been decided.)
- The aide would write the three activities down — preferably on a chalkboard — keeping the wording simple and reading them aloud as she wrote them. We opted for the chalkboard because as each item was completed, Ian could get up and mark it off, entailing “closure” and a “transition activity.”
- After each activity, the aide would say something like, “We’re all done with this activity, you can mark it off, and we have two more activities to do.” Then… “We have one more activity to do.”
- When the three activities had been completed, the aide and Ian decided what activities would occur the next day. Ideally, Ian would pick the first activity (it was best when he had two options acceptable to him), the aide would pick the second, and they would decide on the third activity together. (This gave Ian some control and a good idea of what to expect the next day, which helped reduce his anxiety.)
- The activities for the second half of the period may be the same every day or vary depending on the school and its programs. For example, the only options available for first period might be working in the office or library (preferably doing physical activities) or going back to Life Skills to swing or bounce on the ball.
- The second half of third period might be best spent setting up the cafeteria for lunch. (He zipped through math.)
- The second half of fifth period might entail cleaning up after lunch. Other options might include helping out in other classes, going to a PE class, or doing custodial work. Most middle schools do not have playgrounds, but maybe there is a track — ideal for doing a couple of laps. While some of these activities are not inclusive, I saw it as a necessary phase in order to get past the aggressive behavior. Being suspended is not very inclusive either.
Presenting each activity:
Again, start with the big picture, the teacher might say,
- “The first activity is sight words…”
- Here she might point to the board where it is written
- “…and there are 25 of them here.”
- She shows the stack of cards
- “We will go through the words — the ones you know will go here…”
- She points to the left
- “…the ones you don’t will go here…”
- She points to the right
- “…and we will go through that pile one extra time.”
An example of three activities that Ian might do:
- Sight words: There might be 20 words he knew really well, 20 he mostly knew, and 10 he was working on.
- Letter/sound association: We used sight words to “back” into phonics, rather than vice versa.
- Read a chapter of a book: At whatever level is familiar, yet still challenging.
After a week of this, Ian knew the routine. We then repeated the program with math, computer, and science. He did not need anything like this for PE or cooking (play and food … hmmm 🤔).
The day we implemented this schedule the aggressive behaviors dropped substantially. Because he was working 1:1, it was much more relaxed (we all know that’s a good thing) and the aide could work on helping him vocalize his thoughts and feelings. If he was struggling with work, she might model what to say, such as “This is hard,” or “I need help.” And when she taught Ian to say, “I need a break,” it was honored, and strategies were developed to help him take the break. “Why don’t you get a drink of water and then we can finish the words?” the aide might say.
The middle school years can become challenging with that puberty thing going on. Add in anxiety, limited speech, unreasonable expectations, and an environment over which students have little control, and you have a recipe for disaster/suspension (in this case they are synonymous). While Ian had been doing a simple version of this program throughout elementary school, we had to kick it up a notch for middle school.
So if you are having similar problems, take a step back — see what’s working and what’s not. If it is working, keep doing it or do more of it. If it is not, work with the school (!) to try new ideas. Send me an email and I will gladly help you come up with some ideas with you.