When I was in grad school a million years ago, we often used timelines when talking with clients. When I began working as a school counselor, primarily with juniors and seniors and concentrating on the college admission process, I rarely pulled out the timeline. Working at a middle school, however, I find myself using timelines a lot, and for a variety of reasons.
The timeline is a powerful tool. It helps organize thoughts, and helps students put things in perspective. It’s a great tool for also reminding students that the past doesn’t have to equal the future, and shows how life continually moves forward.
Here are a few ways I use timelines.
1) To get an accurate time frame of events that occurred. Many times, students will come in, tell me about their horrible day, and I feel lost in their story because they are jumping back and forth across the time spectrum. Using a timeline, I can say, “Back it up to last night and show me on this timeline when things happened.”
2) To understand family dynamics and changes. This is incredibly helpful when working with students in family groups, or students who have moved around a lot. It can be a connect-the dot for where they have lived or to understand the changes their families have gone through. This is an important part of the divorce and separation groups I run. The students really love this when talking about their family story.
3) To show change does occur. I like to have kids describe their past, plot where they are, and describe their hopes for the future. This is great because it helps students understand that their past does not equal their future, and then we can start focusing on what needs to change to change the future. In the picture below, we use a little CBT to show how changing our thoughts can also change future behaviors.
4) To show growth. Using timelines to measure anger, sadness, or frustration at a given point in time (now) and then again after a few minutes of using coping strategies, can show that working through problems can lead to improvements.
5) To create goals. Each year I do a lesson called How Long Is A Lifetime. We use timelines to project the life we want. Students think about the things they value and want out of life then use the timeline to indicate where they want to set their goal.
I’m sure there are many other ways to use timelines. If you have a way I didn’t mention, I’d love to hear about it. Make sure to leave a comment below!