Using Visual Supports for Students with Developmental Disabilities
It is true, no two learners are alike. Some learn better through reading; others through listening or doing. For students with developmental disabilities, who have difficulty communicating with others and especially difficulty understanding what people in their environment are communicating to them, it is important to present information in ways that matches the student’s learning style and optimize their ability to learn.
Visual supports—concrete representations of information that is absorbed visually—are one way that educators can help students understand what is being communicated to them. Through visual supports, students can learn to communicate with others and make sense of the world around them when in the school setting. These supports can easily be customized to address individual needs and the student’s level of comprehension. For example, a student who is challenged by reading may not be able to understand a schedule that uses words, so the student would do better with a schedule that uses pictures instead.
Utilized in the school setting, visual supports cover a wide range of student needs: understanding rules, increasing independence, making decisions, communication with people, providing organization, supporting transitions from one task to the next, providing clarity on what specific work to complete, and offering positive feedback. Visual supports can also thwart or diminish challenging behaviors in a variety of ways and can assist with decreasing exasperation, frustration, and anxiety.
There are four common types of visual supports: visual schedules, information sharers, checklists/organizers, and visual behavior supports.
1.A visual schedule, which shows the order of activities across time periods throughout a school day offers predictability and decreases anxiety by allowing the student to be aware of their expected activities for the day and tasks to be completed during their instruction. This type of schedule may be developed from pictures, simple words, use of objects (such as a napkin to represent their lunchtime) or a combination of all of these options and can be customized to the comprehension level of a specific student, For example, one student may only be able to manage a small amount of information within a given time period, while other students can manage the information for a longer length of time.
A mini schedule can be used to provide information to the student for a specific work task. Incorporated within a content area such as math, mini schedules provide the student with expectations within their instructional content session. For example, if the student needs to complete a worksheet or web-based math assignment, each task can be depicted by objects, pictures, or words placed on a schedule to be used during the math instructional time.
2.Informational sharers help students share information about their school day with others, such as their parents. While teachers often communicate with parents and provide information about their child’s school experiences, it can be more meaningful to parents when their child communicates information directly. Using objects, pictures, or words, students can indicate which activities they participated in by selecting the accurate objects, circling or identifying the picture or word, and writing a word or sentence to describe their activity.
“People locators” are a type of informational sharer that provides information to students about other people involved in their lives. If a student travels between two parents, a people locator (resembling a calendar) can be created to show the student which days he or she will travel to which parent. This same calendar can be used to indicate which week days are school days or stay–at-home days, etc.
Personal information cards are another type of informational tool that is beneficial to support student’s communication when they are not able to speak. The information card provides relevant student information such as: student’s name, parents’ names, address, medical information, or other special instructions. The student is required to have this information card with them at all times. This is especially beneficial when a student travels off-campus during the school day to a field trip or when going out into the community.
3.Student checklists increase a student’s independence and help the student be successful by organizing specific tasks into chunks or smaller steps so that they can be easily completed. If a student becomes off-task or distracted and is then redirected back to task, the checklist will provide a visual reminder by indicating what steps they have completed and where to continue to complete the task. Checklists can also be used by the student to provide information on what to do when arriving to school or before leaving school. Like all other visual supports, checklists may contain pictures, objects, words, or a combination of all of these depending on the student’s ability level. A visual checklist can also assist a student with sequential tasks that will provide a supportive foundation in various areas of the student’s educational setting while in the classroom (student activities), outside the classroom (bathroom), and in the lunchroom (preparing snacks or meals) with the purpose of increasing a student’s independence and overall success.
4.Visual behavior supports help to prevent challenging behavior and maintain emotional regulation. These are beneficial in helping a student calm down when they are agitated. The visual behavior supports provide the student with information about their expectations, possible outcomes, and what consequences will occur with challenging behavior.
Students with disabilities are known to have difficulty with transitions from one activity to another. Visual supports become a powerful resource by letting students know what is coming next or where they may be going next. These visual behavior supports can provide choices to students such as taking a break, choosing a sensory activity, and choosing a preferred task or reward. Examples include:
- Picture cards on a ring to assist students when they have a choice to make
- Token boards, which track tokens earned by students for appropriate behavior or responses. First/then visuals provide students with a picture indicating what must be done first and then another picture indicating the reward which follows the task.
- Rule cards, social stories, and power cards can be used to teach students the expected behaviors in various school settings.
Visual supports can be a valuable option for a student who is not understanding or responding to verbal instructions, as well as for a student with developmental disabilities who requires environmental and instructional supports to help him/her overcome various challenges. When deciding to use any of these visual support options in the educational setting, educators should individualize their selection based on a student’s abilities and communication needs, as well as a determination that the student responds to the use of visual supports and is not embarrassed by them. When educators choose appropriate visual supports in their classroom, student achievement and independence will be celebrated.
Debra Watland is Director of Sierra Academy of Scottsdale, where she brings broad expertise with 36 years of special education experiences to her position. Prior to her role at Sierra, her employment experiences include Special Education Department Chairperson and teaching elementary through middle school students with special needs in public school settings in Iowa, Maryland, and Virginia. Additionally, Debbie has been local president for The Council for Exceptional Children and served on a Special Education Advisory Board in Maryland. She taught a course for teachers who were continuing professional development while fulfilling their certification requirements for the Maryland Department of Education. Additionally, she worked as a clinical faculty teacher for Virginia Commonwealth University mentoring future teachers. Currently as director, she partners with ASU in supporting their Professional Teacher Preparation Program.