Humans are visual junkies- we are hardwired to process visual information with little effort. Advertisers and marketers use this scientific information to sell us hundreds of billions of dollars worth of products each year. We use emojis to express emotions and memes to express humor. Traffic signs guide us while a lightning bolt signifies the smartphone is charging. We map out our time on calendars, compulsively create lists, and some people even color-code their closets! (I’m just saying). So why, when I tell parents that visual supports will help their child follow directions and communicate better, do they look at me like I am the Chupacabra?
Maybe it is because you don’t know what visual supports are? Visual supports are tools that use images to supplement the information that is also being provided verbally, orally, or in writing.
Or maybe you heard the myth that visual supports are only for people with different or special communication needs?
I hope from my introduction you see how many visual items enhance communication in our adult lives. What if I told you that visuals are even more important to children?
Visuals provide children with predictability and make expectations easier to remember. They help children follow routines, make responsible choices, and express themselves appropriately, cultivating calm, effective communication skills, and independence.
Here are some ways I have taught families to use visual supports as a tool to help their children follow directions and communicate better:
Christine and Paulo separated recently. They have three children, all under eight. They agreed to a temporary timesharing arrangement so they could all get used to having two homes.
The kids would sleep at Paulo’s apartment on Wednesday and Saturday nights and at Christine’s the other nights. The children were very anxious about which night they would be where even though both their mom and dad had been very vocal about it and reassuring. I made them this simple visual representation to hang up in both homes:
Christine and Paulo posted the visual supports at the children’s eye level, making it accessible and readable. I also taught them to incorporate referring to the visual as part of their daily routines. I also showed them how to handle a schedule change:
The result has been increased feelings of calm for everybody.
Ella is six years old and started waking up at night and going into her parents’ bedroom. Ella’s parents felt protective of their sleep and overwhelmed by their nightly visitor. I created this social story for Ella and her family:
Not only did they read the social story as part of Ella’’s bedtime routine, but they also used it to teach her the Calming Strategies detailed in the story. I taught them how to use the book with Ella, and now she can calm herself down and fall back asleep independently more often than not.
A family I work with has a ten-year-old, Ari, who is an aspiring gymnast. Last summer, she went to a gymnastics camp. Her mom thought it would be a great time to establish more independence with routines before and after camp. Ari and I worked together to create these A.M. and P.M. checklists.
Mom laminated them, and Ari put them on a clipboard and attached a dry erase marker. She loved moving through her lists, knowing what was expected of her. She even had some choices built into the routine. Now she makes her own checklists!
Outdoor Choice Board = Responsibility (response-ability)
Dean is a seven-year-old boy who got very used to using electronics without limits during his school closure last year. Although back in school and participating in karate after school, Dean has difficulty playing outside with his brother and other kids in the neighborhood. Dean would prefer to use his Nintendo Switch™️ or iPad. He was getting agitated if you took them away and, once outside, complained that he was bored and had nothing to do.
I created this Outdoor Choice Board for Dean and taught his parents how to use it with him and respond if he struggled to make a choice.
It did not happen overnight, but now Dean willingly plays outside and helps other kids who resist being outdoors, knowing their devices are right inside.
I work with many middle schoolers who find it “annoying” when adults ask them about their feelings. I created this Internal Weather Report visual to give families with older children an alternative way to talk about emotions.
Feedback from many families has been positive. Instead of yelling, “Leave me alone,” one teen I work with was able to tell her parents that her current internal weather report was dark and stormy, so she did not want to talk about school. Her parents respected that, and she told them the following day that she still had a lot going on inside, but she was willing to talk.
I hope this article helped you see how visual supports can help your child better follow directions and communicate. Of course, visual supports are not a magic pill. The visuals, coupled with your willingness to use them as social-emotional learning and teaching tools, will make the difference.
I empower parents and teachers to feel calm, capable, and confident so that they can problem-solve and create new possibilities with their children.
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