Visual Schedules for Children with Special Needs

Use visual schedules for children with special needs in church to help them understand their environment and help with transitions.

Visual Schedules for Children with Special Needs

Children with autism spectrum disorder and anxiety can have difficulty with time and transitions at church. They often can’t tell time or don’t want to leave an activity they are interested in. Visual schedules can help children understand their environment, know what’s going on, and decrease challenging behavior.

When I first started volunteering, I told the children it was time for the Bible story. One child did NOT want to leave the train he was playing with, and I was stuck – should I force the issue and risk a meltdown or change the expectation?

Another child asked when her mom was coming back – continuously, sometimes 5 times in 3 minutes and often during the short lesson time. How was I going to honor her need while also working with the other children?

Answer to both questions – a visual schedule!

What is a visual schedule?

At worship services, we have bulletins or an order of service to tell us, as adults, what to expect. Visual schedules are the same thing in picture form. In Sunday School, for example, a visual schedule may have the following pictures/activities:

  • Welcome
  • Play
  • Lesson
  • Sing
  • Pray

How does a visual schedule work?

Print out the activities you want. Laminate and cut apart. Display in sequence in a spot that is visible to everyone.

As an activity is completed, remove the picture. Now, the visual schedule is telling children what to do, not you. This can reduce frustration in leaving play because now it’s time for the lesson – the visual schedule says so.

Here the Downloadable Files for Sunday School Visual Schedule

Why do I need a visual schedule? I can just tell the children what to do.

Even as adults, we want to know what’s going on. Ever attend a meeting without an agenda? It’s not fun. And even if you know the order of the worship service by heart, you still probably want to know of any changes. We rely on schedules to help us understand our environments.

Many children with autism spectrum disorder and anxiety have difficulty with transitions. Why would they want to put up the train they are playing with to go to the lesson? If a person tells them it’s time to move to group time, the child can protest or argue. If the visual schedule tells them it’s time, there is nothing to argue with.

Do visual schedules really work?

As with all other tools, visual schedules need be consistently used over time. They aren’t instant magic wands.

Here are two ways I have seen visual schedules help children with special needs:

  • The child who would not transition to group time from playing started to accept the Bible visual schedule card a few minutes before it was time and then come to group time
  • The child who constantly asked when “it” (Sunday School) was over and when her mom was coming stopped asking when given a visual schedule. She knew her mom would come when the last picture was done

And don’t forget volunteers! It’s super easy for volunteers to look at and follow visual schedules!


Children with disabilities may show unwanted behaviors. Visual schedules can help them understand their environment, the expectations, and what is going on. The goal is to decrease challenging behavior by using visual schedules for children with special needs.

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