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Why Change in Routine is Hard

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And How A Visual Schedule Can Help

Often parents tell me that when they have a change in routine or schedule their kids have a very difficult time. This can result in a meltdown, refusal to leave the house or participate, or just being thrown off for the rest of the day. 

But why does a subtle shift in routine, such as an appointment being canceled, or dinner plans changing, cause such a disturbance to kids that struggle with sensory processing? 


Routines are predictable. 

For someone with sensory processing disorder (SPD) the sensory world is challenging. If your child is more sensitive to input, an avoider, new or unexpected sensory experiences can be stressful. These kids often do well with routines because they know what to expect. They know what sensory experiences they may encounter and can prepare for them. Shifting the routine may throw a different or new sensory input at them that they were unaware of. 

Being familiar with a situation, allows them to know what to expect. You may be thinking of a few specific examples about your own child that demonstrates this point:

  • Wanting to wear the same clothing
  • Wanting to eat the same thing for breakfast
  • Enjoying playing with the same toys
  • Liking going to the same places

Familiar situations or activities allow their system to be ready. But when we suddenly tell them, ‘we are stopping at the store to grab milk on the way home from school.’ They get thrown off. 

This was not part of their plan, the system is unprepared for it! Their body or mind might start wondering what to expect in the situation (even if they’ve been to the store before) and become stressed or anxious about it. 

Talking about the change with the child as much in advance is one strategy parents often use. For some, this works really well. For others, it’s almost like you didn’t tell them. 

We all process information differently, and some kids may do great with an auditory (verbal) discussion of the changes, while others may do better with something visual.

In comes the visual schedule! 

A visual schedule is a schedule that you can see. It’s tangible; you can touch it and you can physically move things around on it. 

There are many ways to organize a visual schedule. A simple written list of activities, or if your child isn’t reading yet you can use pictures. 

A visual schedule can be organized for one day, or give an overview of the entire week. They can be as detailed as needed or just give the highlights. It could focus on a specific time of day such as a morning routine (get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth). Or the schedule may just indicate different activities day to day (library day, play date, OT appt.) 

The great thing about a visual schedule is that you get to make it work for you!

For a child that struggles with change in their routine, I like to use a weekly visual schedule. I prefer to have this on a whiteboard or a laminated calendar with velcro cards, which allows you to easily move the activities as needed. 

How to use a visual schedule

At the beginning of the week, you and your child set up the schedule. Perhaps on Monday they have a play date, Tuesday you go to the library, Wednesday is OT, etc. You can go over the schedule and discuss it. 

Choose a place for the schedule to ‘live’ that you and your child can reference when needed. 

But when the inevitable happens and there is a change in routine, take a moment with your child to discuss the change and modify the schedule. Lets say the time of a play date needs to change. If it’s a velcro card, you can move it to the new day and time. This allows your child to visualize the change, and see that the activity is still happening but just at a different time. 

If an event needs to be removed altogether, you can place it back in the envelope, and let them know that you will get it out later when needed. 

Being able to see the activity move from one day to another visually can be very helpful for those that struggle with change. 

Of course, being able to modify the schedule as much in advance is also very helpful. But this also works well on the fly, as it gives the child a different way to understand and process the change (as opposed to just telling them). 

No one is the same

As we know, we all process information differently. For some, the visual schedule is a great tool, and can really help with those changes in routine. 

For others, it may not be the right tool. If your kid struggles with change in the routine try it out and see how your kid responds. Often kids catch on quickly to a visual schedule and typically like them, while others may take a bit of time to get used to it.

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