February 18, 2020 / by LiteracyUntangled

Timers: A Handy Time Management Tool

We ADHDers, have our own concept of time. As my mother likes to tell me, “You were born late, and you’ve been late ever since.” My mother wasn’t the only to point out my chronic lateness. When I was at home from college for the summer, my friends and I would play a game of pick-up baseball every Sunday evening. I was so mad when I found out the organizer always told me the start time was 15-20 minutes earlier than it really was. When I told my friend how annoyed I was, he replied “You’re still late, just not as late as you were before!” That shut me up…

Enter the timer! The timer is probably one of the most used tools in academic settings, from the good old reliable kitchen timer to the online timer projected up on a SmartBoard. The reason they are used so frequently is because they work! But why do they work?

  1. Transitions: People with neurodiverse brains (eg. ADHD, dyslexia, autism, etc) tend to have difficultly moving from one activity to another (transitions). Ever ask your child to get off their phone and they tell you ok, only to find them still on their phone 20 minutes later? A classic transition issue! A timer gives your child a heads up that a transition is coming and an understanding that there is a set amount of time for the activity they are currently engaged with.


  2. Tolerance: We often ask kids with neurodiverse brains to do tasks or activities that frustrate them. To them, it is the end of the world, never going to end, the worst of the worst! Visual timers that get smaller as the time elapses (my favorite is the one right on my iPhone) can help immensely!

    Set the timer for the amount of time you need your child to do something – e.g. sit in the car while you pick up their brother. You’ll find your child is better able to manage their frustration if they know there is an end to their pain in sight and they can physically see the end getting closer. If you know you only have to do something for a set amount of time, and you have a way of seeing the time get shorter, you can get through anything (any time on any exercise machine ever!!).


  3. Staying on Task: Ask a person with ADHD to show you their to-do list. Now ask them how much they got done that day. If they don’t have any learned strategies, I can grantee you it’s close to nothing (I may or may not have personal experience with this…). Again visual timers are an excellent way to help your child stay on task.

    A mom of one of my students recently mentioned that mornings are the worst in her house. They have a horrible time getting their child to eat breakfast, shower, get dressed, and out the door. She said they give their child a time limit but they are never ready on time and it causes arguments. This child has little sense of passing time. I made two suggestions, both visuals: a checklist and a visual timer. The visual timer will help their child get a sense of time and the checklist will help them stay on track.

I use visual timers all the time in my practice for students with severe dyslexia or ADHD. It’s purpose is twofold, to reward them with a 1-2 minute break between tasks, and for transitioning from their break back to work. For example, after each activity, I set the visual timer for a 1-2 minute break. During the break my students can draw, get up and wiggle, run in place, etc. The visual timer is in their line of view and simultaneously shows the numbers going down and the circle disappearing. When there is 5-6 seconds left on the timer, they know it’s time to put their crayons, cars, etc away and come back to the work table. You’d be surprised at how well it works!

Friendship Circle has an excellent post on all the different types of available timers (physical, digital, apps): 20 Visual Timers for Children with Special Needs. As I said earlier, my favorite timer is the one on my iPhone – it’s visual, audible, and always with me!