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Tools to Help Children Prepare for Change: Using Timers


For the therapists at LEEP, one of the must-haves for the classrooms are the large visual timers hung on the wall for all to see. We use them A LOT. They help us alert kids to the changes that are happening (“In 5 minutes it’s time for gym!”) and help us navigate turn-taking for more popular toys (“Andy has two more minutes to swing and then it will be your turn.”), as well as limit setting (say…when a child is using a drum and you want to encourage his musical interest but perhaps the sound is driving you bananas.)

Remarkably enough, the use of the timer works well in helping kids to navigate these situations that are otherwise difficult. So why do timers help many children with developmental differences function more easily? Dana Hutchins, the lead in the Turtles therapeutic group, shared some insights into why timers seem to increase their flexibility.

Timers build predictability. Timers create predictability, which is incredibly important to our kids. They give activities a real end point.”

“Think of it this way: it’s an alert that in a few minutes, things are going to be different. It lets kids see ‘different’ coming and they can mentally prepare for what that might feel like. It reduces the instances of surprises that can be upsetting.”

Timers make abstract concrete. Time itself is a strange concept. It seems to change for many of us depending on what’s happening at a certain time. It certainly seems to speed up when we’re having fun (“time flies when you’re having fun”) and slow down when we’re stressed. Many people who have been in accidents have described the event moving in slow motion. For kids who like a concrete world, time is problematic because it always feels different. The timer takes this abstract, open-to-interpretation measurement and applies some rules to it.

Timer tips

  • Use discretion around what activities you use a timer for. It’s good for really fun activities that have an end point (playing at the park, playing with a toy), but could be problematic if used around meal times. The last thing you want is to create anxiety around eating.
  • Don’t use them for long periods of time. Young children – regardless of developmental differences – do not have a strong idea of how long time is. Setting a timer for 45 minutes is… well, useless. Give them a note that you’re setting a timer a few minutes before you’re ready to transition so it’s fresh in their minds.
  • Point out how your actions are associated with the timer is beeping. It may be helpful to say, “I heard the timer beeping, that means it’s time to clean up” or “I heard thetimer beeping, it’s time to get in the car and go grocery shopping.” Starting to clean up or grabbing the jackets without saying anything may be confusing for some children.

Timers aren’t for everyone. It should be noted that timers aren’t for every child. Some children may be overwhelmed by the thought: “How much time do I have left??” Or they may feel more anxious knowing a timer is going to go off but there’s no telling when – and when it does that sound is going to be so surprising!

“There’s no one-size fits all solution because there’s no one-size child,” says Dana. “We’ve seen it work with many children so it’s worth experimenting with. Like everything with parenting, there’s an element of trial and error. You’ll know if it’s not a fit, trust your intuition.”

Alternatives to timers. If your child doesn’t like timers, there are other ways that you can set expectations that change is coming. The simplest, of course, is a verbal warning that an activity will end. Or you can build visual schedule so your child can see where the changes are built into the day. First breakfast, then get ready for school, then playtime at LEEP!

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