Quick-fire strategies: Can Visual Timetables Be Bad?

Quick-fire strategies: Can Visual Timetables Be Bad?

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Are visual timetables the secret weapon for fostering positive behaviour in students? Join us in this episode of School Behaviour Secrets as we navigate through the fascinating dynamics surrounding visual timetables and their profound impact on student behaviour.

Discover how visual timetables have become a game-changer when it comes to supporting neurodiverse learners, reducing anxiety, and providing structure during transition times. But here's the twist - can this widely-praised strategy sometimes have a negative effect on certain pupils?

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Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

One of the things that can lead to people producing consistently high levels of stress chemicals amongst others is a fear of transition or change. So in school, that can mean a pupil becomes highly stressed when they don't know what activities are happening or in what order they're happening. When one lesson or task is going to end, the next one's going to begin ,which adults will be teaching them in which order and so on. 

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan. And welcome to another quick fire episode of school behaviour secrets where I'm going to share an insight or a strategy into classroom behaviour or children's social, emotional and mental health needs that can have an impact with the children that you work with all wrapped up in a tasty 10 minute morsel. If you're wondering whether normal School Behaviour Secrets episodes have gone, don't worry, they'll return at the start of September. So today I want to talk to you about the question. Can visual timetables make a child's behaviour worse? Can they be bad? So let's start by talking about what visual timetables are, and what need they support with a lot of human behaviour is driven by stress chemicals by what's called the autonomic nervous system. And we've talked about the autonomic nervous system before in the podcast. But if you've not come across this before the job of your ANS is to manage the energy state of your body. So the lowest energy state your body can be in is asleep or dead I suppose, but then you've got bigger problems than whether visual timetables are effective. And the highest energy state is the fight flight freeze reaction where your body perceives it's in a life or death survival situation. And we spend most of our time in the middle of that scale, sort of calm and focused. And that's where our brain likes our energy state to be that middle ground is called homeostasis. Then if we spend too much time in a higher energy state, say we run across the car park to the car, if it's raining, then it wants us to naturally move back down to this middle state afterwards. And if we spend some time feeling lethargic or sapped of energy, it wants us to shift back up again. And all day long. The brain and your autonomic nervous system is scanning the world around them and trying to manage and fit energy state to the situation that we find ourselves in regulating upwards and downwards, but always kind of aiming to come back to the middle. And the chemicals it uses for this are adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. You may have heard the term vagus nerve or vagal tone in respect to this, the vagus nerve is a big part of our system for regulating downwards back from a high energy state back towards the middle. And vagal tone is a sort of turn that indicates how well you're able to do that. 

So when we're thinking about the stress chemicals, it's not good to have too many of these sloshing around our system, driving us towards a high energy state for a long, sustained period. They were designed to help us cope in true life or death situations like wandering into the path of a sabre toothed Tiger. And I've got to say by the way that the Sabre toothed tiger has now been mentioned in so many episodes of school behaviour secrets, that it's got its own agent and is insisting on an appearance fee. The thing is, those physical life or death situations, they tend to be short lived, you fight the attacker or you run away and a few minutes later, that situation is over. It's done. Our bodies are simply not designed to have high levels of those chemicals in our system for a long time, because they actually do a lot of damage when they're there long term. Now, two interesting things to note here. The more of these chemicals you have in your system, the more likely you are to perceive other people or incidents or situations as a dangerous threat. It's like they put your threat detection system on over alerts it becomes more sensitive it overreact to things. And secondly, one of the things that can lead to people producing consistently high levels of stress chemicals amongst others is a fear of transition or change. So in school that can mean a pupil becomes highly stressed When they don't know what activities are happening or in what order they're happening, when one lesson or task is going to end, the next one's going to begin, which adults will be teaching them in which order and so on. So this uncertainty and anxiety leads them to be in a more stressed states, meaning they're more likely to perceive other issues as threats and overreact, at least from the adults perspective. So having a way of understanding the flow of the day can be really powerful. It relieves our students anxiety, so they're not worrying so much about what will happen next, and when one activity will end, and the next will begin. And that means their stress chemicals can go down, shifting them from high alert energy back to calm and focused homeostasis. And this is where a visual timetable comes in a visual timetable is essentially a set of pictures that illustrate what's going to happen and in what order. So imagine you've got a strip of images horizontally running left to right. The first picture might illustrate registration time, the second one maths, the third one reading, the fourth one break time and so on throughout the day. And as one activity is completed, it comes off the visual timetable helping to indicate the passage of time moving from one task to the next. And for many kids who struggle with transition and change, this is great, it's a simple way of helping them achieve certainty about what to expect to reduce anxiety, and get their bodies moving back towards homeostasis. This is often an issue for autistic children. But by no means exclusively, we always have to treat each child as an individual anyway. 

For children who struggle with transition, visual timetables can be a brilliant support, there's a BUT coming, right, that's obvious. But, there is a condition called pathological demand avoidance, which is a very, very specific form of autism. If you have PDA, your body experiences very high levels of anxiety when someone gives you an instruction or directs you to a task or says that you have to do something, you know, places some sort of a demand on you. And school is a place full of demands. That anxiety translates into stress chemicals, which push the child towards that high energy high alert state ever closer to fight or flight or freeze. And interestingly, although that child may well have needs and struggles around transition themselves, and while the visual timetable may also help them understand the flow of the day, the good that does is outweighed by the fact that a visual timetable is also a pictorial list of demands. Registration involves having to give the teacher your name. Maths involves having to complete given work problems. Reading involves reading a book given to you by the teacher that you did not choose and being told to engage in an activity that was not of your choosing. And actually, seeing this pictorial list of demands can actually fuel our stress chemicals to a much greater degree than the support we transition and change reduces them. 

So it may well be for this people with this very specific pathological demand avoidance profile of autism, that visual timetables are actually counterproductive and they do more damage than they do good. And for the people, not being able to predict when demands are going to happen, might actually be beneficial, because they're not, you know, kind of worrying about them in advance and planning ahead and think about where all the demands in the day are going to be which fuels their anxiety, all of which means we have to look at pupils needs as individuals and work out what strategies are going to be most effective for them. And not just assume that a strategy that supports other children with a similar condition is going to be effective for our target child. Even when that feels counterintuitive, even when someone is saying if you have a child with a certain condition or certain needs, then you should be using visual timetables, we have to fit our solutions and strategies to the individual child. 

And that is where I stand on visual timetables, they can do a lot of good, but they can also do a lot of damage. And I hope you found that useful, especially if you're supporting kids with autism, their own transitional needs, or PDA. If you did I've got one quick favour to ask please spend just 30 seconds giving us an honest rating and review on your podcast app. And that tells the algorithm to share school behaviour secrets with other teachers, school leaders and parents who would find this information useful. I'll be back with another quickfire episode next time. Until then have a brilliant week. And thank you for listening.

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)