Helping Children Understand Time

By Jean Stern, MS

All children have challenges with understanding time, waiting, wondering when something will happen, or feeling like they’ve been doing homework for hours when it’s been 10 minutes. For children with Asperger profiles, these challenges can be even more difficult and will need more strategies and patient repetition to learn the concept. Because time is an invisible concept, use strategies that help make the passage of time more concrete.

Use Specific language

We often answer our kids time questions with responses like:  “soon”, “in a minute”, “when I get a chance”, or “I’ll be right there.”  These answers are vague and unclear to our children and don’t answer their questions.  Try to say exactly when the action will happen and then follow through. Be realistic about the time you state so you can stick to it-they’ll be holding you to what you say!

  • When this show is over
  • In 5 minutes
  • After dinner
  • On Saturday morning

Time things for them

Children think homework, chores and other less desired activities “go on forever.” Time some of these actions and show them that the dreaded activity is just 5 minutes and can be tolerated more when it’s followed by a fun activity.

  • Time timer:  You can purchase a time timer which visually shows children time counting down so that they can see how time passes and how much is left. It works well for chores, waiting and other occasions when minutes count down to the next event. You can also use kitchen timers, an hourglass or other ways of seeing time that work for your family.
  • Counting:  The time it takes to do some actions can be broken down with the help of counting. Instead of saying “Brush your teeth for a minute,” try “Brush 10 strokes on each surface.”  Change, “You need to wait longer for your turn to speak at the table,” to “Everyone gets to say 3 things.”  Change “We’ll go when I finish the dishes,” to “I just have 7 dishes left. Count them with me as I do them.”

If we help our children understand how time moves and what to expect they will feel less anxious and know what to expect (even if they don’t agree!).