Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #7: Self-Determined Schedule Making

TIES Center Distance Learning Series

As adults, we typically start our week looking at the plan for each day. Everyone has their own schedule making preferences and ways of doing schedules. With moving to distance learning, our students with significant cognitive disabilities are now being asked to create their own schedule instead of having it determined by their teacher. This, in turn, becomes a daunting task that can be overwhelming for parents and students. Just knowing that a little bit of front end planning can go a long way in helping your child regularly utilize self-management skills can take some of the pressure off you. Also know that you are not alone because we are all navigating these uncharted waters together. It is okay to ask for help or, if you don’t have time to create schedules, share this Distance Learning Series post with your child’s teacher to solicit help. 

What is this “new normal” supposed to look like? Am I doing enough?

Just know that anything you are doing for your child while still balancing the rest of your life and family IS enough! Stressing out about how to make everything “perfect” or just as it was in school is an impossible task. It will not be a replica of your child’s school day in your home because the setting is just plain different. Okay, now that we got that out of the way...It is important for parents to maintain positive relationships with their children through the process of moving to remote learning. Children are feeling just as uneasy about our “new normal” as we are and there is no need to add to that emotional turmoil. Becoming too strict about “to-dos” for your child will not bring health to your family relationship and could cause longer-term damage than not finishing a math assignment that night.  

How can I help my child become more independent at home?

Parents need to complete their own work at home while keeping their child on track. One way to help students with significant cognitive disabilities to stay on track is to facilitate their self-determination skills by helping them follow a daily schedule. Self-determination skills are any skills that increase independence by allowing students to be self-directed in their choices. When students with significant cognitive disabilities are empowered through choice and autonomy in building their daily plan for work tasks, this can help reduce anxiety and provide a means for the student to be more productive in completing learning tasks. Independent time management skills are also needed so students can stay on-task once they begin an assignment or task. In a world where students are not able to control much around them, even the adults cannot, this can be a way to regain a sense of control with choice and autonomy. Building in opportunities for independence and allowing a flexible schedule can provide some structure but keep anxiety at bay. 

Two ways to promote independence at home:

Using a Self-determination Strategy to Plan a Daily Schedule

This part of planning should take no more than 15 minutes

  • Have your child outline a schedule for the day by picking options from a set of choices to plan their own order of events.
  • Keep in mind realistic expectations of what can be achieved in a learning session. Look to your specific school recommendations and then adjust as needed. The following are a combined list of recommendations from several district school websites:
    • Elementary: If the school is recommending 60 minutes face-to-face academic time, this would equate to 20 minutes of learning time a day for literacy, math, and content areas (i.e. science, social studies) or special areas (i.e., art, music, PE)
    • Middle school: 120 minutes of face-to-face academic time would equate to 30 minutes of learning time a day for literacy, math, science/social studies, special areas (i.e., art, music, PE)
    • High school: 180 minutes of face-to-face academic time would equate to 45 minutes per core subject area and 30 minutes for special areas (i.e., art, music, PE)
  • Make sure your child creates a balance of preferred and non-preferred activities to break his/her day up with challenging and enjoyable tasks.
  • Allow your child to prioritize certain subjects occasionally but not the same subject every day.
  • Allow the option of doing work on Saturday or Sunday to make up for days that were skipped during the week and to help spread the week out. This can be incredibly helpful for working parents that may have more time to oversee activities or help on the weekend.
  • Make sure your child is checking off items as they finish them, not you as the parent, to increase independence and choice.
  • Use a checklist format instead of a schedule format to indicate that subjects can be done out of order on any given day as long as a certain number of checks are received.
    • Set a small goal of 2 checks out of 4 subject areas.
    • Break harder daily academic tasks into smaller chunks so more checks can be earned for bigger rewards (e.g., earning 5 checks out of 10 items, but each item is a shorter task).
  • Low-tech and high-tech options: Creating a checklist can be done in many formats depending on the format to which your child is more responsive, and how much time you have to create one. A low-tech checklist example would be to create a word document or write the different subject areas in a table on a piece of paper with blanks for checks (use icons or picture symbols if needed). See Example 1 for a way to organize the boxes. If you and your child prefer to use technology, then you could make a more high-tech checklist by finding an online editable schedule or using a list maker on a smartphone. This could also be done within an AAC device.
A table that is a checklist. Across the top is listed the subjects of reading, math, writing, and subject area or core subject. Vertically down the left side are the days of the week starting with Monday.

Example 1: Checklist of Tasks

Rewarding Oneself for Completed Work

You can set your child up for success by connecting your child’s self-made schedule to a self-delivered reward system. Once you set this connection up for them, you will see that many students, including with significant cognitive disabilities, enjoy the predictability of the setup and will seek to repeat the process and take more ownership in subsequent rounds of work-rewards. Example 2 shows added columns for your child to total up “stars for the week” and set mini-goals and rewards along the way. The key here is to be flexible and help your child choose a frequency of rewards that is motivating but still challenges them to build stamina for working longer periods of time. In the example, the child can pick from an array of choices each day that are smaller rewards and then at the end of the week if the weekly set goal is achieved, the child can choose from a set of bigger rewards. Choice boards are discussed in the TIES Distance Learning Article: Time Management During Distance Learning

A table that is a checklist. Across the top is listed the subjects of reading, math, writing, subject area or core subject, and a star reward box for completing all or set criterion. Vertically down the left side are the days of the week starting with Monday.

Example 2: Checklist of Tasks with “Star Rewards” for Completed Assignments/Tasks

Balancing school assignments when parents cannot always monitor all activities is hard, but can be made easier through use of self-determination strategies. Creating a flexible schedule allows students to have input into their day and pace their learning so assignments get done more independently and with less frustration from both students and parents. As a parent, know that this process may require some setting up, but the reward of seeing your child spend part of their day doing work and leisure activities independently is worth it.

Distance Learning Series: DL #7, May, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Reyes, E. (2020). Self-determined schedule making (DL #7). TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota  and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership.  Collaborating partners are: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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