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Teach Your Child to Use a Picture Schedule with a First-Then Board

A photo of a first then chart: two boxes, one labeled "first" and one labeled "then." The first box has a picture of a math problem written on a chalk board and the second box has a picture of toy blocks.

Picture schedules are a great way to help students with autism know what to expect in a class, during the school day, on a shopping trip, or other events.

One way to help your child or students learn to use a picture schedule is to start with a "first-then" board (also called a "first-then" chart).

To use the chart, you'll put photos, pictures, or text representing activities for the student to complete.

Teaching a Child to Use a First-Then Chart

If it would work for the child, you can verbally explain what the chart is and how to use it. If verbal explanations wouldn't work as well for your child, you can use this step-by-step process to "show" them how to use the chart.

Stage 1: Two Preferred Activities When I’m first teaching a child to use a first-then chart, I like to make both of the activities things that will be fun for the child. Yes, the ultimate goal of the schedule is to put a less-preferred activity first and a more-preferred activity second. However, the first couple of times you use the schedule, I like to make it both fun activities so the child associates the schedule with something positive right away. This helps the child learn how the schedule works in a fun way. What you’ll do is point to the first picture and say, “First, blocks” and point to the second picture and say, “Then, watch videos.” You can change this language to match your child’s needs. Then, immediately play blocks for a few minutes. After that show the schedule again and point to the video picture to indicate that you’re moving on to the next step.

Another photo of a first then chart, this one showing blocks first, then watching videos on a phone.

Stage 2: One Short, Less Preferred Activity Followed by a Preferred Activity In this stage of teaching, I like to give the child one simple task, followed by the “fun” activity. In the photo, it shows putting one piece in a puzzle (a very short task!), then watching a video on a phone. You don’t have to pick a first activity that’s this short, but it should be something the child can do quickly. I would do this a few times before moving on to the next stage.

A first then schedule with the first picture showing putting one last piece in a puzzle and the second picture showing watching videos on a phone.


Stage 3: One Less Preferred Activity Followed by a Preferred Activity In this stage, you’re giving your child one task (such as a math worksheet) before moving on to watching a favorite video. You can replace the first picture with a new activity after your child watches the video to start the schedule over again (if you wanted to do a series of activities).

A first then chart showing a math worksheet and watching a video on a phone.


Stage 4: Longer Schedules

Once your child is using a first-then schedule consistently, you can start adding more items to the schedule.

A picture schedule with three boxes for photos instead of two.

I sell these as a set of picture schedules, but you can often find free first-then charts via an online search.


Making the Charts

I like to attach the photos with Velcro and then have the student take them off the chart when the activity is finished. I also laminate the charts for durability. This also allows you to write on the charts with a dry erase marker if you're writing words on the schedule instead of using pictures.

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