Chaotic mornings, afternoon meltdowns and bedtime arguments…sound familiar?

For kids with special needs, transitions from one part of the day to another can be particularly trying, and when everyone is tired, hungry or in a hurry, emotions can run high.

So how can you, as a busy parent, meet your child’s needs in a way that will keep everyone calm?

The answer is having routines because kids thrive in a predictable environment.

Just as you have processes and procedures that streamline your life at work, predictable routines make life easier for kids at home.

If you don’t like having surprises sprung on you, then chance are your special needs child (well, any child really) doesn’t appreciate it either!

Kids cope better when they know what to expect.

You can set your child up for success every day by using a variety of techniques that will help your child to be more certain and less susceptible to emotional overload.

5 top tips for creating routines for special needs kids:

1. Create a visual timetable

Young children and those with special needs such as autism, Down Syndrome, language and other developmental delays find this visual approach very helpful. You can use free resources like clip art or google images to make it easy for your child to predict when activities like shopping, going to kindy, afternoon tea and rest time will take place. Another great tip is to laminate your pictures so that they’ll wear well, and then stick Velcro dots on the back. This will enable you to make an easy chart and as each activity is completed, your child will enjoy putting the picture in a ‘finished’ box. This helps kids get closure on one activity and helps them to move on to the next.

2. Use Apps to create a portable visual schedule

Who knew that your phone could enhance your child’s emotional resilience? Apps like First Then Visual Schedule and Model Me Going Places are a great way to help children to understand what is happening next, and the best thing about apps is that they’re usually cheap, instant and you can use them wherever you are.

3. Use a white board

For children who can read, it is helpful to have a simple daily schedule that they can refer to and tick off as each task is completed.

Morning routines might consist of very specific behaviours like:

Put my uniform on

Eat my cereal and drink my juice

Wash my teeth

Pack my school bag

Get into the car at 8.15am

Afternoon routines can be organised in a similar way. Remember, many kids find it hard to keep it together during a long day at school and by the time they get home can be very tense and wound up. If you want to keep your household’s emotional temperature down in the hours between home time and bed time, make your expectations clear and keep it simple.

4. Share your routines with people who care for your child.

One easy way to stress special needs kids out is to force them to do the same thing in different ways. You can avoid your child’s confusion by looking for ways to maintain the routines you use at home in your child’s preschool or long day care centre. Talk to staff there about what works for your child and provide them with the tools they need, such as a copy of your visuals or information about the apps you use at home. Chances are that your child, and perhaps others in the centre, will benefit from your combined approach.

5. Stop talking

It might sound strange, but international research suggests that we adults overload children with too much talk. If you (like me) are a ‘traffic cop’ kind of mum who is always giving directions and ensuring that compliance has been achieved, why not ease up a little and lessen your child’s language load? Special needs kids can find it particularly hard to process multiple instructions, so slow down, support them with visuals and use a low vocal tone so that you don’t escalate their emotions further.

How do you help your child stay organised and understand what’s coming next? Here’s a great place to share your ideas with other mums!

Main image courtesy of Shutterstock.com
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  • routines are useful in general and something all parents need to do regardless


  • I have heard it’s easier to have routines in place for special needs kids. I think routines in general come in handy for everyone though


  • Some great info here for some common issues.


  • We use a chart simular to this which needs to be changed every day my son has NF1 and since we started with this chart we have gone ahead in leaps and bounds. He has adjusted to it so well even to the point if i need to do something thats not on the chart he will point it out to me. I just wish we started on it years before we knew to use it. Lets just say there are many fewer tantrums in a day now.


  • My daughter aged 7 has autism and yes routine is a key factor to get thru a day. As soon as something is different without warning she freaks out and can’t cope. We have a lot of visual aids even iPad apps. We try to keep the same routine to keep her calm. Lots of people said she was just being rude when she was younger but they don’t understand autism or how it affects you or your child. She is getting a lot more social since having both therapists last year but still needs improvement. Gradually we are able to introduce something new and she seems to cope with one thing at a time. I just wished people would stop acting weird when they see her meltdowns. She is not naughty she just doesn’t cope with her surroundings such as noise etc. please understand


  • Thank you for sharing these great tips.


  • wow this would be such a different routine for these mums


  • I babysit many kids and had three of my own who all get a list of what to do before school and after school so we are all on the same page. I like it when the bigger kids help the smaller kids keep to a routine so we get out the door on time. We had a list for the weekend as well and a check list for the beach and play dates. (Things like pack your own backpack and beach towel and thongs and hat.) This works well just need to remind the kids to check their list.


  • As the mother of a special needs child myself and these are all great points. We would be lost without our photo to do list


  • Routines are important for children with special needs however you also need to be organised. We try and keep to a system but have it a bit loose because if something happens and we don’t have dinner on the table by 5.30pm I don’t need a complete meltdown LOL


  • As the mother of a special needs child myself and these are all great points! By having a firm routine the child knows exactly what to expect and what is expected from them.


  • Work places which implement these same strategies to accommodate a special needs employee report that all their employees are happier and work better. Who wouldn’t appreciate having expectations clearly stated,being spoken to in a calm manner, or being made aware of likely changes to schedules?


  • working with young people with disabilities I agree that routines and the tips suggested here definetly work!


  • Routines not only help the child, but they also make life so much easier for Mum and the rest of the family. Keep it simple and easy to understand for the kids, and you’re more likely to have success with coping with their restrictions and challenges to every day life.


  • I think most children thrive on routine.


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