Using Visual Supports

By Step by Step Consulting

This month, we are going to be talking about visual supports. Lots of kids often learn best using visual supports rather than through auditory input. Seeing it, rather than saying it, helps the person retain and process information.

Before we begin, I want to propose a question? Could anyone reading this imagine or deal perfectly fine living without smartphones, to- do lists, alarms, reminders to manage our day to day life.These are all forms of visual supports that not only allow us to track our tasks but also reduce stress in our lives.

We all learn very differently but many of us learn visually and benefit greatly from visual reminders.

Visual supports have many benefits for kids too- they can make communication easier for the child. For example when we present information verbally, the words are available for a brief moment. When we present information visually it can be there for as long as we need it.

A common concern we often hear is ‘Will using visuals prevent my child from using or learning words? lNo! We know using visual supports regularly does not interfere with a child’s ability to later use or understand language. In fact, research consistently suggests the opposite to be true. Children may begin to use more language after their parents or teachers start to use visual supports. This is because most parents and teachers naturally pair the visual support with language. Some children will then pick up the words faster because they are hearing them frequently paired alongside visuals they easily understand.

Other Benefits of Visual Supports

  • Promotes independence
  • Communication
  • Allows children to better understand what is expected of them in given situations
  • Can help reduce anxiety and manage sensory stimulation
  • Gives meaning to items, events and routines in day to day lives
  • Understand feelings and emotions
  • Helps with transitions, following directions and organisation

Some Examples of Visual Supports

Choice Board

Choice Boards are a great way to introduce visual supports to a child. A Choice Board is a visual representation of the choices that are available at a certain time. You can use a Choice Board to display options for food, play activities, or toys that are available to play with.Initially, while children are learning to make a choice, we suggest that a Choice Board only offer one to two options. Once your child has learned to make a choice, then you can begin to offer more choice. Also, initially it is better to use items your child is motivated to access and over time you can include choices for lesser preferred activities or items (for example, choices for clothing, choices for work tasks etc).  

Visual Schedules

A visual schedule is a visual representation of what is going to happen throughout the day or within a task or activity. They help children understand and anticipate the future and they can teach children how to complete a task that has many steps. For most children, it is best to first learn to use the simplest form of a visual schedule: the FIRST—THEN Board. The FIRST—THEN Board displays only the next two things that are going to happen (e.g., FIRST get your coat, THEN go outside).

Some may be ready for a more complex schedule that shows several things that are going to happen such as the schedule for the day (e.g., go to the toilet, get dressed, put on shoes, eat breakfast, wash teeth, go on the bus,….) or the steps to an activity like brushing teeth (e.g. get toothbrush, wet toothbrush, pick up toothpaste,..). you can also include things your child may not be expecting on the schedule to allow them time to prepare for it (for example, doctor appointments, visitors coming, etc).

Home/school calendars

Imagine getting up every morning and being unsure if it’s a work day or a day off. You get dressed, eat breakfast and if someone collects you for work, you know then it’s a work day. If not, you know it must be a day off. For some children, every day is like that. These calendars show them each morning what to expect in the day.

Countdown timers

A Countdown Timer is a visual representation of time that can be used instead of saying “five more minutes until the iPad gets turned off”. It can tell your child how long they have to wait for something. Using timers can prevent frustration and upset when something fun is ending or by not knowing when they will access something.

Top tips for success

1. Don’t give up- It will take time for your child to learn and understand the visual support

As this is a new skill, lots of exposure may be needed before the benefits and effects of the Visual Support are apparent. They also may need to guided through the steps before they use them independently. or the before doing so independently.Prompting may also be needed for some visual supports (e.g. prompting transitions for first then boards, prompting the choice making for a choice board).

2. Consistency is key

Use the visual support in the same way each time, especially when you are first introducing the visual support. This way your child will see that it means the same thing each time it is presented.

3. Pair with simple language

Pairing simple language with the same visuals each time is allowing your child to be exposed to the language and learn what the language means. It is important to keep language simple (for first then boards, rather than saying ‘ first we are going to go down to the room to get your shoes and then we will go and open the door to go outside, maybe just say first shoes then outside, or for choice boards rather than saying ‘would you like to have a banana or the green apple, maybe just say ‘banana or apple’?).

4. Make visual supports portable and durable

Visuals can be made portable by using an app or visuals on your phone or table and they can be laminated so they will be more durable.