The Scrappy Picture Schedule Might Save Us — Parenting in a Pandemic

Our worlds have been thrown upside down. Or at least sideways. Definitely more than slantways.  I’m sitting at my desk, watching a neighbor walk swiftly passed my house in a black puffy jacket. She’s holding her phone horizontal like it’s a cracker she’ll bite, only she’s gabbing into it, likely talking about a microscopic virus and how she will manage her life now. She’s out and about, can still go for a walk in the suburbs, can absorb this 8:00 A.M. sun on a crisp Monday morning. But she and I won’t run up to one another and hug, or even shake hands. We will keep our distance. As an Internet meme said, Compassion is not cancelled. Love is not cancelled.

We can still say hello—you and I, dear Reader—across the span of the Internet.

Hello! I’ve been writing a book. (More on that in another post.) Have I mentioned all our lives have been thrown upside down? This morning I learned that 33 states have closed schools for the foreseeable future, a statistic that will be outdated by the time I post this. The mayor of NYC announced yesterday that he would not be surprised if kids can’t return for the remainder of the school year.

And the reasoning makes sense. (If you haven’t seen “flatten the curve” graphics and social distancing simulations , I highly recommend.)

But this will be a hard stretch, no less for those of us in complex parenting situations. Some of us might have lost jobs. Some of us might still have the privilege of working remotely but consequently can’t possibly provide the kind of homeschooling curriculum we now see floating across our favorite social media platforms.

And some of us, even if we had all the time in the world, cannot do for our children what our children need, because the supports our kids need take many hands and advanced degrees and ingenuity that transcends the simple architecture of our love–which we deliver in hugs and peanut butter and jellies or blended diets bolused through the blessed g-tubes.

I mean: We’re gonna need to give ourselves a lot of grace. (And Congress is gonna need to pass a lot of supportive bills.)

Here’s one way my family is going to manage the chaos of these days. We’ll be making daily picture schedules.


Very fancy picture schedule, with laminated cards and full-color images on Velcro strips.

Hear me out: If you’ve got one (or both) feet in the world of early intervention or special education, you know the phrase “Picture Schedule.” It makes you think “laminated cards.” It makes you think “Velcro strips.” You think “Boardmaker” and “complex prep-time.” We’ll be doing none of that. We’ll work with a notebook and pen.

Some back story: Fiona, the eight-year-old who was once nonverbal, who once used her hands to communicate and then an iPad, is now very verbal. She does, however, get caught in verbal loops throughout the day, where she can’t stop asking the same questions: What are you doing? Where are we going? Where are we? (“Perseverating,” they call it.) She asked this last question–Where are we?–of two guys at a new church a few weeks ago, and I could hear in their voices their initial enthusiasm when they answered, and then the gradual fatigue as they answered again and again. “Don’t let her fool you,” I said. “She knows where she is.”

It was an SLP who validated what I already knew—that Fiona wasn’t asking these questions because she doesn’t know the answer. She was asking them because she wanted to connect. “What are we doing?” was another way to say, “Hello. Please talk to me.” A question is often a way to get a response. Fiona knew this. She still knows this. So she uses questions to engage with people. She is no fan of social distancing.

She also uses it to manage some anxiety about the future. So the SLP recommended that I preempt the constant questioning with two strategies: First, model lots of novel sentences rather than questions. And second, create a picture schedule.

I cringed when the SLP uttered those two words. Velcro?! Laminated cards?! Boardmaker?! Planning?! Who has time for that when they’re also holding down jobs and raising other children? We’d worked with formal picture schedules before, and I could never make them work for us. But the SLP talked me off the laminated ledge.

“Don’t do it that way,” she said. “Keep it simple. Just write out the schedule on an index card.” She encouraged me to do my own simple line drawings.

Enter the Scrappy Picture Schedule. I made them on and off for awhile, and then I forgot about them. But when the second weekend of March hit, along with the epidemiology reports, along with official word that school was shutting down, I pulled out a notebook. It was a Sunday, and my husband was at work. I asked the kids to list what they wanted to do that day. I arranged those ideas into a Scrappy Picture Schedule.


A notebook page with simple images drawn down the left side, activities in the middle, and times on the far right. The schedule reads: Free Play now – 10:15, Read 10:15 – 11, Church Online 11 – 12:30, Lunch 12:30 – 1, Do Art 1 – 2, Go Outside 2 – 3, Frozen 2, 3 – 5, Free Play 5 – 6, Dinner 6 – 7, and Bedtime 7:30.

The wild thing? It not only radically decreased Fiona’s looping questions. It also helped her sister, two years younger, who got super enthusiastic about the day’s plans. And it also helped me, who needed direction to get through the otherwise shapeless day.

When I posted the schedule on my personal Facebook page, the first people to love it were non-parenting pals. Folks who were suddenly working remotely. Grown adults who could brush their own teeth and cared only for their cats. These folks were all, “I need one of these for myself!”

It’s another instance of “Accommodations Are Actually Good for Everyone.” The visual schedule might be good for the disabled 8-year-old might be good for the typical 6-year-old might also be good for the grown-ass Mom, who would have otherwise stared down the structureless Sunday afternoon, and into the structureless week, and through the likely structureless month(s), and gotten glassy-eyed and immobile with overwhelm.

Some logistics: We crossed each item off as we completed it. And we didn’t entirely hold ourselves to the schedule. We inserted an impromptu 20-minute “quiet time,” otherwise known as “Mom gets to be online to order herself some hand lotion because these babies are dry as birch bark.” We also extended “free play,” never got to “reading,” and enjoyed an extra hour of art time. You get the point. We were flexible.

Also, this was not a work-day for me. I don’t yet know how we’re going to manage my husband’s and my work responsibilities as we hunker down. No doubt, by extending ourselves lots of grace.

I do know this: I started writing Star in Her Eye because I had been a perfectionist who tried to have a SuperBaby. And then my baby—my very tiny, very alert, very amazing, and very rare baby—handed my perfectionist ass to me in the best of ways and said, “You’ve got some things to learn, Momma.” I’m not nearly so hard on myself, or on the world, as I once was. We are all just tender beings in search of love, often in the wrong places. And so we build all kinds of emotional armor around ourselves in order to survive.

But now, we need to build some distance. And that is another form of love.

Where are we? as Fiona would say. What are we doing?

We’re loving each other.

Last night, I watched Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (of Megan Markle and Prince Harry wedding fame) give his Sunday sermon. He quoted an article about the power of something so simple as soap to kill COVID-19: “At the molecular level, soap breaks things apart. And at the level of society, it may well hold things together.”

In other words, sometimes small things–like soap–can keep large things intact. Same might go for Scrappy Picture Schedules.

Also, Dear Star in Her Eye Readers, I wrote a book! More on this later, but Raising a Rare Girl is available for preorder.

43 thoughts on “The Scrappy Picture Schedule Might Save Us — Parenting in a Pandemic

  1. Thank you so much for this beautiful piece, and all of those which have come before, and those which are still being imagined.

  2. I used to be a personal assistant for a disabled adult, and we had a schedule book that we read every day. It had the order of events, the menu for the day, and then some choices for her to make. It helped us to have a good day together without driving one another up the wall, and it helped my day with my toddler son go a lot faster. I do better with structure than I would like to admit!

    Congrats on the book! I can’t wait to read it.

  3. Reading your blog, reminded how much I miss you and your family. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful take on life & your strong commitment to love. We look forward to adding your book to our library collection! Congrats!

  4. I have been checking to see if you’ve written a new post for…MONTHS! And I’m so glad you have and so glad to know Fiona is verbal now. I’ve just preordered your book!

  5. Heather, your blog popped up in the oddest way and I’m so grateful to have come upon it. There are lots of blubbery posts about coping in this crazy new normal, all well meaning and as useful as corn picks for eating soup, but your article is golden.
    You’re finding ways to keep your kids safe and engaged but also to help your rare daughter. I’ve never heard this term before but wish I’d known it when I was teaching kids. Thank you for sharing your insight, for bringing your family close to my heart while staying safe. Sending you wishes for good health.

  6. I love this picture schedule! You are doing your best here! I think it is a message we often forget. There is still so much uncertainty about what education will look like after spring break over here and how to teach 6 and 7 year olds online…

  7. Absolutely fantastic! A great read with an interesting tip for us ‘grown-ass adults’ with too much time suddenly on our hands! And seriously, a really engaging read. You’re a great writer! 🙂

  8. I love the idea of having “online church for kids” during the day. I’m adding that to my son’s daily COVID-19 pandemic, homeschooling schedule right now. Thank you for sharing this amazing idea!

  9. My youngest finished school two years ago, so my listicle is based on past memories. I’m hoping it benefits those who have forgotten what a relationship once was, when it comes to their children.

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. This is so good!! I loved the “talked me off the laminating ledge”! Simplicity is definitely needed right now along with routine and schedule with flexibility and grace. So much grace.

  11. I’m an educator at a camp and a visual schedule is so helpful for all kids. It seems helpful especially for kids with trauma or anxiety, who always need to know what’s next. Your post made me think about how often I get asked certain questions over and over by kids and on the surface it could be annoying, but there’s usually a good reason. And kids in general have such little agency in their lives I don’t blame them for wanting to know what’s going on.
    More and more I can’t wait to hear those incessant questions again, as we won’t have children at camp until social isolation is over. I’m starting to miss them terribly.

    I think I also need a schedule for this whole working from home thing.

  12. Heather, I’m a Best Friend to Brenda and Charlie Hazlegrove and great Friends of Jennifer and Ray.  I so enjoy your Post and pre ordered your Book (Congrats on a well deserved accomplishment) Can’t wait to receive and share with my Daughter who has five Girls nine and under and Morgan who is Five has Rett Syndrome. We are blessed in so many ways.  God Bless you and your Family this Easter Season. Kate and Billy WilhelmHarford County, Md

  13. Loved the article, and I totally agree that a schedule can be useful, especially where kids or older people are involved. Whenever my mother visits us, we organize ourselves to follow her schedule. It’s not difficult, just requires us to be timely about everything.

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