I have observed children with disabilities in many different environments across New Jersey. I have had the pleasure of observing many classes that used visual supports with great success. Some of did a great job of making visual supports that were meaningful and helped the students become more independent and successful in the environments. Other classrooms had visual supports that had no meaning to the students. The visual supports were just decorations around the room that become visual noise or distractions. It always amazes me when I go for an observation of students with language disabilities and there are no visual supports for the students. Regardless of the student’s disabilities, visual supports are what help make sense of our environment. As a typical individual, I use visual supports on a daily basis while I am driving (GPS, street signs, directions) or list (whom to call, what I need to purchase, and chores I have) and I have my blackberry to make sure I show up to appointments on time.
Visual supports help an individual focus on priorities and decrease the auditory distractions of words which turn into the Charlie Brown teacher WAWAWA WAHA WAH WAH. Visual supports allow us to feel confident in what is being asked and that the expectation are very clear. Children with disabilities often are asked to negotiate through a maze of expectations throughout the day. As humans we are verbal noise making machines, do this, go there, listen, look, stop, go, sit, stand, quiet this, quiet that and all between and over the conversations the adults are having of how traffic, what they had for breakfast, what they will do later what they did last night. If you ever get a chance to just sit back and listen, you would be shocked at the amount of verbal language being used all around students that struggle with expressive and verbal language. We want to be language models but often we are language samples of projectile vomit. Yes, I know very graphic but now you get the idea.
When I visit a classroom that has “show and tell” visuals or has no visual, I always want to ask the teacher “how does your students survive this environment?” because I have language and I want to shut down. I know that sounds harsh. However, when an individual does not understand language or interpret what you are saying increasing the number of words, saying it louder is not going to make it any better than it was before. The only solution is to help each other understand each other with supports that communicate the content of the message.
Utilizing visual supports for individuals that struggles with language helps the person plan and prepares for what will be happening. It gives the individual a point of reference so they can refer back if they feel unsure or need to double check the steps on a task they are doing. It helps them feel in control in a world that they have so little control. It decreases the anxiety over the anticipation of what comes next and what is expected of ME. Because in their world, everything is unexpected, uncomfortable and confusing without supports to explain it.
Visual supports do not have to be fancy. You do not need brand named software to create the visual supports. Visual supports have meaning because we GIVE them MEANING. As the teachers, therapist and parents we give meaning to the world that our children are part of. We label the world for them. Just like there are 100’s of ways to say Grandmother there are 100’s of ways to use symbols. As I said, we give meaning to the symbol. For example, a picture of hands, can mean quiet hands, hands on lap, hands at sides, hold hands, clean hands and so on.
Please remember that you can use real photos, drawings, images from clip art to make visual material for students. It doesn’t have to be expensive software to make it have meaning.
What to do:
- Do not label furniture with their names unless you want the students to practice labeling. Label with expectation: Chair: Sit, Table: Work, Sink: Wash
- Keep visuals at the students’ eye level. Think of visual strategies as marketing as they do in the grocery store. Everything that is yummy and not good for you is at eye level of the children. Go down the cereal aisle.
- Have multiple copies of the symbols you are using. They will ripped they will get lost.
- You have to teach the symbol and the meaning before you expect a student to understand to use it.
- Need to have a change card so the students have some way of knowing that something unexpected is going to take place such as a change in routine, activity or therapist.
- Laminate the picture with tape, contact paper or real lamination.
Resources for visual pre-made supports:
Software you can use that you already have:
- Word processing tools: Word, Word Perfect, Works, Google docs
- Spreadsheets: Excel,
Software to use to make visual supports