Often I feel when people hear “visual supports,” they think of an intervention for kids with special needs. Yes, visual supports are great for kids with special needs, but they are also great for EVERYONE! Think about it. On a daily basis you are bombarded with visual supports and you probably don’t even realize it … calendars, agendas, planners, exit signs, street signs, traffic signs, store signs, maps, restroom signs, your battery power on your phone, visual boundaries for parking spots, and more. Without these visual supports we would likely miss important appointments, pass the street we need, and end up in the wrong restroom. I literally cannot go a day without looking at my calendar. If I ever lose it I will likely have a meltdown that rivals my 2-year-old. Yet, we expect kids to function everyday without visual supports. Waking up each morning with no clue what the day has in store for them or what is expected of them … so we shouldn’t be surprised by the meltdowns and negative behaviors that can come with the uncertainty.
Visual supports are an effective strategy that includes: concrete items, pictures, symbols, or printed words and/or a combination of these. These supports may assist children in their ability to maintain attention, understand spoken language, and sequence and organize their environment. (Hodgdon, 1995.)
Visual supports have been found to be effective in:
- Increasing communication – use of pictures to share wants and needs
- Higher cognitive functions – processing expectations
- Learning readiness – kids know what is expected of them at the start of a task
- Personal responsibility – kids know what tasks they need to compete for the day
- Interpersonal skills – social stories or scripts to help teach social skills (a social story can be a written or visual guide describing various social interactions, situations, behaviors, skills or concepts)
- Increasing organization – clearly defining where items belong, help organize your day, etc.
- Understanding information – visual supports can break down tasks into easier steps like morning or evening routines.
- Supporting behavior – visually representing what a child is working for, what their choices are, rewards/consequences, or steps they can take to calm their body when upset, etc.
Reasons why you should use visual supports:
- They are visually appealing
- They can attract and hold attention
- They make concepts more concrete
- They clearly define expectations and consequences
- They can help express wants, needs, and thoughts
- They are a communication tool
- They help people with and without special needs
Visual supports can come in many forms and they can be quick and easy to make … or if you are on a time crunch, Pinterest has a bunch of great ones! I have obsessively pinned visual supports on a “things for home and school” board for later use.
With my own kiddos I use visual supports in many different ways:
- Calendars – My kids have a calendar with pictures so they can see what sports or special activities we have scheduled for the day. I use a calendar because my son is a planner and likes to see long term … he might get that from me! This helps my kids understand what their day/week/month will look like. They cross off the day before they crawl into bed.
- Day of the week labels – I labeled five drawer totes with the day of the week. They start their day knowing what day it is and get the outfit out of the drawer. This helps create organization for all of us.
- Food schedules – My kids could snack all day long. However, if they do, then they don’t eat dinner. We have a visual “schedule” that includes breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, and sweet snack. It GREATLY reduced the “I’m hungry” in our house … which has helped me keep my sanity and has increased the amount of food my kids eat at meals.
- Transition – My favorite visual … my timer! I can set my visual timer to show my kids how much time we have left before we have to leave, go upstairs for bed, to soak in the bath, etc. Timers have ended “battles” in my house.
- Completing tasks – My son loves checklists! Again, another thing he probably gets from me. I can quickly draw pictures and words of what he needs to do to earn TV time, earn some cash, or just to help me out. I also used a visual support for the steps to use the potty for my daughter. It broke down each step for her and helped her learn to use the potty independently and successfully.
- Safety – We use chalk to create a visual boundary in our driveway. It is a line that we do not want them to cross. It keeps them up towards our house and away from the road. My kiddos know that if they cross the line they will have to take a short break from play. Each kiddo has tested the boundary a couple times, but I stayed consistent with time away and they no longer test the boundary. (A “Time Out” recommendation is half of their chronological age.)
- Choice – I will ask my kids what they want for snack while showing them the actual items. This helps them comprehend what I am offering and reduces the tantrums when they get something that they didn’t want … since they chose it!
- Routines – We have a visual support for the steps to get ready in the morning. We also have a visual for what steps need to be completed to get ready for bed. These help increase my kid’s independent living skills which makes my life a lot easier when my husband travels.
- Coping skills – They have a visual of what they can do to calm their body which includes taking a break in their room, taking deep breaths, etc.
- Behavior interventions – I LOVE contingency maps! (Literally a “map” that shows them the two choices they can make and what the positive reward would be and what the negative consequence would be depending on what they choose.) I like to show my kids that they are the ones in control of their behavior and they are the ones that choose either their reward or their consequence. We also use behavior charts that clearly define their behavior expectations, how many stickers/points they have to earn, and what they are working towards earning. My daughter recently choose to work for a “just my size” broom and dustpan … a win-win for both of us! This visual support has taught both of them responsibility!
The ways you can implement visual supports into your home or your child’s day are endless and they can have a positive impact on your child’s behavior.