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  • Matthew Nordman

Behavior Management #3: 5 Ways to Structure the Environment

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

Summer is almost here, and for nearly everyone this season change is met with joy. For me it means the NBA season is unfortunately over, but beautiful weather, having kids home, and trips like beach days and vacations more than make up for it…*cue record scratch*…having kids home?! Prepare to find some ways to engage your children with these 5 tips to structure their environment. While this advice can be used year-round, it’s often at the beginning of summer that parents are looking to structure their children’s days. And even though our posts are primarily geared towards children with autism, a little bit of structure usually helps everyone else as well.


Part 1: Learning A-B-C (5/21/21)

Part 2: Emphasizing Prevention (5/28/21)

Part 3: 5 Ways to Structure the Environment (6/4/21)

Part 4: Replace-Reinforce-Reduce (6/11/21)

Part 5: Extinction (6/18/21)

Part 6: What to Teach? (6/25/21)

Part 7: Generalization (7/2/21)

Part 8: What Next?: Maintenance (7/9/21)


There’s only one thing to fear in this picture, and

it shouldn’t be the fact that school is nearly over.


So far we’ve learned about antecedents and consequences, how to determine the function of a behavior, and different strategies to prevent problem behaviors from occurring. This week is more of a specific training, but it will still require knowledge of those concepts.

Create a Schedule


You might be wondering why we need a schedule in the first place. I recommend using a schedule with children for a few reasons:

  1. It gives you an opportunity to fill “empty” time periods in advance. For example, if I were to ask you to write down a list of everything your child does, and at what times, you’d probably be able to get it really accurate during the school year. During the summer it can be difficult to figure out how to fill a gap between lunch and dinner in a productive way, for example. By creating a schedule you can plan for play dates, register for day camps, create a list of chores/activities, etc. Otherwise after lunch you would have to plan a playdate at the last second unsuccessfully, have to hear “I’m bored” repetitively, and might even see some problem behaviors.

  2. It allows you to proactively decrease problem behaviors. We will talk about this more near the end of this article, but by creating a schedule you can begin to see trends where problem behaviors occur. Noticing things like tantrums and the same time that your other child is practicing on his drums could be an indicator that it might be a good idea to put something outside on the schedule during that time. Another example would be noticing that non-compliance with having to clean his bedroom is a lot higher when all of his siblings are home and playing together, so you might have more luck scheduling cleaning when his other siblings are gone or otherwise occupied.

  3. It shows you how time is being used. If you’ve ever started a budget from scratch, you might realize the initial shock you experienced when you realized that you spent three times as much on Grubhub than you had thought. The same goes for a diet - the first day that you track the amount of calories you eat can be eye-opening. This is very similar to the feelings parents feel when, after completing a daily schedule for their child, they realize that instead of watching Youtube on their iPad for 2 hours per day it’s actually 6 hours per day during the summer.

Avoid being shocked at the amount of time spent on

different hobbies by getting ahead of the schedule!


A schedule sounds like a good idea, but my 3-year-old is about a decade away from learning how to use Google Calendar

This is why visual schedules are great!


Use Visual Schedules


Visual schedules are helpful because they give kids an idea of what the structure of the day will be, let them know that good things will follow bad things (e.g. after chores he will have Xbox time), and most importantly, are easy to understand.


The nice thing about visual schedules is that they can be adapted to nearly every functioning level. A lot of early learners, new to schedules, benefit from two-step schedules like “First-Then”. It’s a lot easier to point to a visual schedule with a 3-year-old and say “First help me clean up your toys, then we can eat ice cream”. Over time this can be upgraded to something like “First-Then-And Then”.

Once children get a little bit older, schedules typically shift from horizontal to vertical in order to accommodate more activities. And depending on the age of the child, the steps can either be numbered or based on specific times of the day.

Once they are able to read and write, the schedule would switch to something like a notebook or marker board.


Other benefits of visual schedules:

  1. Easier to conduct preference assessments: Ask most kids under the age of ten what they want to do, and the typical answer is a shoulder shrug or “I don’t know”. But if you have 5 icons laid out and ask, “Which should we do next?” you will most likely get a response.

  2. Gives the child more control: Where you place the schedule in the home is dependent on what works best for your child as well as your family. For example, keeping the schedule in his room might be beneficial for him, but it wouldn’t be successful if everyone else in the family had to walk upstairs to his bedroom to see what was next on his schedule.

  3. Most families decide on two options: 1. Keeping the schedule in a fixed location in a common area of the home, typically on the refrigerator or a wall in the living room/kitchen 2. Having the child bring the schedule with him throughout the house.


What’s the deal with all of these icons?

Where to get them: Google Images is where most people search. If you Google “iPad icon” or “iPad PECS”, you’ll typically get a lot of options. If you’re a teacher or just happen to have access to paid software, something like Boardmaker is nice.

How to print them: The standard size for icons is 2”x2”. Most families print in color, cut out the icons, laminate, cut out the icons again, then put soft Velcro on the back (the hard part goes on the schedule). Laminating is highly recommended since they will otherwise be in really rough shape after just a few days.

Where to put them when they’re done: I typically have the most luck keeping an envelope around to store used icons. For example, if your child walks around with a schedule the size of a normal sheet of paper, you could tape or Velcro an envelope to the back side of it for him to put icons inside when the activities are completed.

Prepare to be a pro with a laminator!


Be Consistent


Imagine this scenario: You accidentally wake up thirty minutes later than usual for work. You’re falling behind on time and have to skip your longer breakfast, which you typically eat while checking out social media, in favor of a smoothie for the road. When it’s time to leave you get stuck on the highway due to an accident, so now you’re definitely going to be late for work. When you finally arrive at the office you remember that you had agreed to meet with a customer but forgot to put it on the schedule. If you’re like me, it’s not even 10am for this person and I already have a nauseous feeling about how unstructured and chaotic their day has been. It shouldn’t be that much different with children.

It’s important to do your best at ensuring your child’s schedule is consistent in order to establish a routine. Children appreciate routines and structure just like we do, and if one parent always has an organized day while the other doesn’t use a schedule at all, it isn’t setting your child up for success with all of the back-and-forth consistency. A lot of times there are things that are out of your control, like having it rain on a day you promised to go to the playground, but that’s when the visual schedules can help out again. Instead of “Whelp, sorry bud.”, you can show him 3-5 icons of activities that can be done in the home, and ask “What should we do instead? We haven’t built a fort in a while, how about that?”

Probably more fun than a playground anyway


Keep A-B-C in Mind


If you recall from the first article in the series, A-B-C stands for:


Antecedent -> Behavior -> Consequence


The antecedent is what happens in the environment before the behavior.


The behavior is the specific problem behavior that we are targeting.


The consequence is what happens in the environment after the behavior.


When creating or updating a schedule, you want to do your best to set things up in a way that won’t cause problem behaviors. Here’s an example of one way I like to “Keep A-B-C in Mind”:


Client: “Johnny”

Favorite Activity: Playing Mario Kart on his Nintendo Switch on the living room TV

Least Favorite Activity: Brushing his teeth

Problem Behavior(s): Tantrums (maintained by Escape and Access to Tangible; remember the functions from week 1?); Non-Compliance (maintained by Escape)


After putting the recurring activities on his schedule, like meals, morning and bedtime routines, etc., I find a two hour gap between dinnertime and bedtime in which to schedule activities. He has asked to play Mario Kart and is having a great day so far, so he’s definitely earned it. Which option would be easier?:

  1. Have him brush his teeth then earn the Nintendo Switch

  2. Allow him to just get started with the Switch while you finish cleaning up after dinner, then ask him to walk upstairs to brush his teeth


Most likely the first option would be much more successful at decreasing behaviors caused by functions like Escape (not wanting to brush his teeth) and/or Access to Tangible (wanting to play Mario Kart). Giving him just a few minutes on the Switch then asking him to transition from his favorite activity to his least favorite would most likely lead to some of his Non-Compliance and/or Tantrums.


While it seems simple when you look at it this way, without a schedule it’s very easy for situations like this to happen. Personally, one mistake I always make is committing to playing or watching something with family members before needing to do a chore or something for work. It’s hard to relax and enjoy a movie at 5pm if I know I need to mow the lawn before it gets dark at 7pm. A simple solution is mowing the lawn before watching the movie. Looking at the daily schedules of your child as well as yourself, you might find similar situations.


Be Flexible When Necessary


I typically see two mistakes when families begin using schedules:


  1. Trying to schedule every minute: It might be tempting to try and schedule every single activity in your child’s day. This would definitely lead to exhaustion and/or burnout pretty quickly, especially when you are trying to fill ~16 hours/day once school is out. It’s okay to keep some activities broad and for longer periods of time. For example, if you want to limit screen time but don’t feel like putting every single non-screen activity down, put something like “Play Room”. Since you can just keep things like an iPad out of the play room, you know he would be playing with toys instead. Just make sure you are keeping A-B-C in mind and not accidentally creating any situations that could cause behaviors (e.g. promising computer time but then forgetting that your other child has to use the computer at that same time for virtual summer camp). And if you don’t like having to stick to specific times, switch to a numbered schedule instead. This would be the case if 12:00 lunch is actually bumped back to 12:30, which then throws off the rest of the schedule. The same thing goes for “Play with Dad” at 6:00pm if your child’s father ends up not getting home until 7:00pm due to hitting traffic.

  2. Not building up to the schedule gradually: I recommend gradually building up to scheduling the whole day over the span of a week or so. Think back to the scenario I used about the person waking up for work late, having their whole morning thrown off, and so on; you don’t want your child to also have the same experience of having the routine they’re comfortable with getting completely thrown out the window in less than a day. A gradual build-up could be just showing them the schedule on day 1, showing them the icons of their favorite activities on day 2, putting just one icon of their favorite activity on the schedule on day 3, doing a “First-Then” on day 4, etc.


It should be fun, helpful, and easy. Do your best to make sure that all three of these variables are hit in order to have your best chance of keeping the schedule going more than just a few days. Tasks like creating a budget are helpful and easy, but not fun at all, so people often quit after a month or two. Exercising and trying out a new, healthy diet can be fun and helpful, but is definitely not easy, which is why “two out of five quit within the first seven days, one out of five last a month, and the same number--just 20%--make it to the three-month mark.” And just like with budgeting and dieting, the process you use on day one is typically not the one that you end up with, so don’t feel bad if you feel the need to tweak some things.

Next week


The past two weeks have largely been about tweaking the environment behind the scenes, whether it’s finding ways to change the order of demands or printing out icons for a visual schedule. But next week we will really focus on finding a replacement behavior for your child’s problem behavior, teaching/reinforcing it, then ultimately reducing the problem behavior.



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