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Unstructured time is when there is no specific instruction to follow or tasks to complete. Unstructured times can include, recess, lunchtime, being on the bus, moving from class to class or activity to activity, going to the locker, classroom parties, bathroom break and free time when work is completed. Many of us are unaware of the amount of time spent engaging in unstructured activities, which are primarily made up of transitions such as waiting in line and moving from on activity to another. Often unstructured time also comes with less supervision. Break time and lunch time are usually considered an enjoyable time for most students, however, due to the lack of structure, the unpredictable nature of the break and the increased social demands these can be some of the most challenging times for students with autism. They may be unsure of what to do and can feel overwhelmed in the social and sensory rich environment of the playground.
The playground is a perfect example of lots of unstructured time with less supervision. The playground can be a really threatening environment for a student with autism. There is generally, no structure or routine to recess and lunch time. A child with autism often prefers routines. Many students use recess and breaks to release stress and unwind, however for students with autism the playground can cause more stress and anxiety leading to more stress and less ability to concentrate and participate in class.
Children with autism may lack imaginative and creative play skills, they may prefer solitary or repetitive play (such as computer games). This puts students with ASD at a disadvantage socially. The student may have little interest in his peers.
Why are unstructured times difficult?
- Unsure what is expected
- Unable to organise time independently
- Sensory overload
- Social Demands
How to supports students with ASD during unstructured times?
- Provide structured activities during unstructured times. Most students with ASD do not need a “break from structure: and it is often detrimental to remove structure. Provide a visual schedule or a visual support to show the student the activities they will participate in during free times. Provide the student with a choice board. A choice board visually shows the student which activities are available during free time but still provides the opportunity to make an independent choice.
- Use a visual timer. A timer ensures the student knows when free time is over. Ensure the student also knows what activity is next.
- Provide a quiet area. Providing an alternative quiet area at free times can reduce feelings of sensory/social overload. It is important to accept that some students may need time to be on their own.
- Provide access to favourite activities. Preferred activities can be allowed during free times as these are often the activities which the student finds most relaxing and enjoyable. Limit access to these activities/items to only during recess/break
- Teach and encourage the student to practise playground games and ball handling skills. Create a video model of the game and have the student watch and then practice- thus allowing them to bemore successful when out on the playground and engaging in the activities
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