Visual timers are a GREAT tool to use with children, whether special needs or not. We’ve actually owned a Time Timer ™ since my oldest was a toddler and it’s one of my very favorite parenting tools.
Typically developing little kids, and developmentally delayed older kids, struggle with understanding time. It’s very non-concrete and kids just aren’t developmentally ready to tackle abstract things like time. And yet time is such a big part of our lives. The visual timer helps kids to SEE time, which helps them to learn how time works, and which also helps them (and you) navigate their day a little more smoothly.
There are several options out there for visual timers. In my experience, a 60 minute timer works best in a wide variety of situations. I love the Time Timer ™. It’s rugged, it’s easy to put back together (yes, lol), it has a clear display, and it’s easy for kids to set themselves as they gain skill. There are other options for physical timers, as well. I advise staying away from oven timers and the like – they tend to have a very unpleasant ring.
I also have a few visual timer apps on my phone, one is called OK Timer and the other is just called Visual Timer (both android, I have no idea if they’re available for Apple). And we have a one-minute timer of the colored-liquid-in-clear-plastic variety.
Using the Timer
I’m not going to pretend to know the best way to parent your child. I can tell you that with my three kids, I’ve had two who needed the rule to be that when the timer went off, it was time to do whatever they were to do when the timer went off. I’ve had one who sincerely needed another five minutes after the timer went off. We just set the timer for 5 minutes less than we really wanted, then let him set it for another 5.
I’ve had two kids who just generally cooperated with the timer. And one kid who needed rewards to cooperate with the timer.
I’ve had two who really came to rely on the timer to measure progress through the day, keep track of time on tasks or until events, etc., and one who really didn’t care for the timer and only used it for “you can do this for x minutes” or “you have to do this for x minutes” occasions.
So, do what works for you and for your kid.
Brilliant Ways to Use A Visual Timer
Moving from a preferred activity to a nonpreferred activity, such as stopping playing with toys and taking a bath, or turning off the TV (set the timer to coincide with the end of the show) and coming to eat dinner.
Ending an Activity, like turning off the iPad, turning off the TV, getting out of the bath.
Starting an Activity, like homework, a bath, getting dressed, taking medications.
How Long Until…
The timer comes in really handy for those times your kid knows something is going to happen in the near future, but they can’t quite hang on to the idea of exactly how far in the near future. Once it gets to be less than an hour, set the timer and refer your child back to the timer. They can actually watch the minutes passing.
How long until we get in the car? How long until my friend comes over? How long until dinner? How long until bedtime?
I’m working on a future post about teaching independent play to children, but a visual timer can really help with this. You start out by getting your child involved in an activity he or she enjoys and can do without help. Bring in the timer, set it for a short period (2-5 minutes). Explain that you need to step away quick but you’ll be right back. He or she needs to stay in the room and play, but you’ll be back before the timer goes off. Step away, wait, come back, and praise the child for playing by him or herself before rejoining the play. Repeat, slowly increasing the minutes on the timer.
We use the timer in the car to help manage the “are we there” and “how much longer” issues. Currently, I can set the timer for an hour, and then set it for additional time and that goes OK, but that was tricky for a while, and we just would wait to set the timer until we were about an hour out from making a stop. We tend to stop every hour and a half when everyone’s awake, and having the timer REALLY helps with the repetitive questions.
Waiting is SO HARD when you don’t have a good sense of time. The timer helps with at least two waiting-related issues.
Learning to wait. When the child asks for help with a non-urgent task, let him or her know that you can’t help right then, but you can help in 2 minutes. Set the timer. (Eventually, you can work on waiting patiently, but don’t expect that to happen right off.)
Managing anxious feelings when waiting. Waiting for a favorite TV show. Waiting for a parent to get home. Waiting for a snack to cook. Waiting is just hard, but using the timer lets the child see the time passing and makes waiting a bit more manageable, because it doesn’t seem like it’s going to last for eternity.
Completing an Activity
Kids tend to rush through nonpreferred activities. For one of mine, it’s the bath. He hates the bath, so his baths tend to consist of squatting in the water, then bouncing back out and declaring himself clean. Ummmm….no. So we use the timer. You have to sit all the way down, and you have to stay in there for 5 minutes and then I’ll come in and help you wash. (Note: he hates it in the sense that he’d just rather be doing something else. He doesn’t hate it in the sense that it really genuinely bothers him. I wouldn’t force him to stay in for five minutes if it was an actual issue.)
A timer is good for tooth brushing, too. (I prefer the liquid minute timer for this.) We also use it for hair brushing, for daily chores (your bedroom will take at least ten minutes to clean. I don’t want to see you until this goes off), etc.
When we’re headed toward a sensory overload or a meltdown, we can grab the timer and the kid, and do some calming activities until the timer beeps. I don’t know about other kids, but MY kid with tends to think that he only needs to barely take one deep breath before he’s ready to go back to whatever he was doing. Using a timer helps in several ways – first, it actually gives him something to focus on that’s relaxing (we use the liquid minute timer and flip it 5 times), and second, it helps him know there is a definite end to the “time in.” He WILL get to go back to playing. Since he knows the break won’t be forever, he’s usually more cooperative with doing a few calming activities like rocking, deep breaths, massage, etc.
Taking turns can be really hard. The timer helps. Not only does it keep the turns strictly fair, but it also helps the person whose turn it is NOT to see that their waiting will not be forever.
I hope this gives you some ideas on how to incorporate a visual timer into your daily life. My regular kids have really liked the visual timer throughout their day when they were younger. With Teddy, who has developmental delays and special needs, we use the timer almost constantly during the day. We’ve had times we’ve had several timers going, even. Once you start using a visual timer, you’ll start seeing all the ways it can help your child’s day go just a bit smoother.
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