How using visual strategies coupled with patience and accountability can strengthen your child’s communication skills
By: Catherine Phương-Đông Nguyen, M.A.Ed.
5 minute read.
Every morning your child wakes to a world filled with visual information. They see the alarm clock digits glowing in the dark, the light travelling through the window that tells them to rise, and the notifications that appear on their devices. In less than a second, your child gets the sense of a visual scene and a neural constellation of information involving 50% of their brain gets processed (Semetko & Scammell, 2012). Think of all the information your child processes in a day. It’s no wonder some children struggle to focus, may become confused, or feel anxious and overwhelmed. These feelings can affect a child’s ability to learn, interact with others, and feel comfortable at school and at home. So how can you use strategic visual supports to help your child make sense of the world and to strengthen their communication skills?
Visual supports, such as photos, drawings, charts, gestures, and print, are a powerful tool of communication for children. They are sometimes paired with verbal explanations and help children know what to do, how to learn new skills, how to express themselves, and how to feel included. These strategies support children who are visual learners who may need additional time to process what is being said and come up with a response. Using visual supports coupled with patience and accountability can deepen your child’s communication skills and abilities because they are engaging, fun, easier to recall, and more accessible.
5 Reasons Why Visuals Supports Are So Impactful & How to Implement Them
1. Visual supports help teach and reinforce positive behavior. According to the Center on the Social Emotional Foundations of Early Learning, supports like choice charts (see below for more info) show children what to do and how to do it, explain step-by-step, procedural directions, and reroute negative behavior to clear and productive tasks (n.d.). When breaking down complex activities into steps, parents can decide if a simpler or more detailed visual will help children master the task. Use images that are clear, uncluttered representations. Have an adult try out the directions before using the visual with children.
2. Visual supports enable children to express their inner world (thoughts, feelings, beliefs, wants, needs). Helping children become aware of their inner world and how to communicate their thoughts and feelings will allow them to develop a confident and independent perspective of themselves. According to relationship therapist, Charles Whitfield, M.D., children who learn to express themselves clearly are more likely to form healthy boundaries (1993, p.48-49). Parents can use visual supports to help children communicate what is available to them. They can select an activity based on the visual information on a board. Start with fewer choices and add more options or complexity later as children are able to manage them. Parents can post images that represent “survival phrases,” such as I am hungry, I am tired, and I need to go to the bathroom or use a feeling chart to help children take a temperature of their inner world. It’s important to select visual supports that meet your child’s appropriate developmental level. See below for a breakdown age-appropriate visual supports.
3. Visual Supports help communicate routines & expectations. Creating clear and aesthetically-appealing visuals can serve as a reminder of what your child should be doing, when they should be doing it, and how they should do it. Reinforced with verbal direction, visuals help children know exactly what is expected of them (e.g., washing hands independently, cleaning up toys). Parents can create visually appealing charts and lists to communicate rules, routines, and expectations. Parents can create stories that use images with words to provide scripts or offer video models of appropriate behavior for children to follow in social situations. For more on routines and expectations, see “3 Reasons Why Routines for Children of All Ages Fail and How to Fix it”
4. Visual Supports enhance memory & learning. Due to their engaging, fun, accessible nature, visuals activate prior knowledge and create a powerful neural bridge to new knowledge. According to the Syntactic Theory of Visual Communication, children remember 80% of what they see and do, 20% of what they read, and 10% of what they hear (Lester, 2006). Just as adults use calendars, grocery lists, and “to do” lists to enhance memory, children also benefit from visual reminders. Parents can use charts, signs, lists that children can view regularly to improve memory. Visual supports like graphic organizers and Do-What Charts can help children visualize academic tasks. For more ways to use visual supports to enhance learning, see this article.
5. Visual Supports cultivate independence and self-efficacy. Visuals are static, meaning that they remain present after words are spoken. Children can refer to them once the spoken words are no longer present. Regular routines, when represented visually, can be taught to children at a very young age. Once taught, the adult can fade out of the routine and allow the child to self-monitor the routine to completion (Tips and Ideas for Making Visuals to Support Young Children with Challenging Behavior). As your child completes tasks successfully, they will gradually take responsibility for their actions and feel more confident in their abilities. According to renowned psychologist Albert Bandura, self-efficacy is "the belief in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations” (1997). Self-efficacy is a person's belief in his or her ability to succeed in a particular situation. Cultivating self-efficacy is a powerful way to help your child become an empowered communicator. For older children, parents can celebrate their child’s completion of a task or hold their child accountable through positive reinforcements. For more on positive reinforcement, check out this article, “Consequences for Kids: What Parents Need to Know”.
Identifying Your Child’s Visual Stage
When deciding which types of visual support strategies to use, consider your child’s learning ability and age of development. According to the Center on Social Emotion Foundations for Early Learning, your child’s “visual stage” (or combination of) may be identified by the following criteria:
• Object Stage (18-24 months): use of actual objects and items for communication needs. Child psychologist Jean Piaget believed that representational thought begins to emerge between 18 and 24 months. At this point, children become able to form mental representations of objects. Because they can symbolically imagine things that cannot be seen, they are now able to understand object permanence.
• Photo Stage (3 years and +): use of real photographs (photo, digital, scanned, magazines, catalogs, coupon ads, Izone Camera, which prints out mini “Polaroid” pictures with adhesive on the back side of the picture) for communication needs.
• Picture Symbolic Stage (4 years and+): use of colored line drawings (hand drawn or commercially produced) for communication needs.
• Line Drawing Stage (5 years and +): use of black and white line drawings (hand drawn or commercially produced) for communication needs.
• Text Stage (5 years and +): use of written words and/or numbers for communication needs.
Types of Visual Supports to Use in Your Home
Plan when and how to evaluate their effectiveness. Adjust the kinds, frequency of use, placement, or purpose of supports as children’s needs change. Make visuals using sturdy materials, such as card stock or file folders. Supports created from these materials are easy to make and long-lasting. Visual supports provide predictability and structure in the daily routine. They let children take part in the curriculum and understand information. They help children organize their thoughts, expand their ability to communicate, and increase their independence. Visual supports are available and can be created in a variety of formats, including books, posters, games, slideshows, apps, and video.
#1. Schedule Boards (First/Then Boards)
A First/Then board can be used to communicate a sequence of events or to reinforce completion of a non-preferred activity. A First/Then board can be used in a variety of ways:
• Assist with transition from one activity to another.
• Assist in completing non-preferred tasks by reinforcing with a preferred activity.
• Breaking a large schedule or sequence of events into smaller steps.
#2 Behavioral Supports (Choice Charts)
Allowing for choice making gives children opportunities for socially appropriate power and control and give choices at every opportunity possible (Do you want the blue cup or the red cup?”) If you don’t have a visual that represents a particular choice, use the actual item or a representation of the choices (e.g., food choice, art materials, toy pieces, video choices).
#3 Communication Boards (Visual Schedule/Reminder Board)
Visual Schedules and Reminders can help children learn how to manage their time and learn self-regulation, executive functions (making decisions), and emotional regulation (control of feelings) as well as behavioral regulation (control of actions and movement) . Younger children may prefer traffic signals, visual cues/reminders that cue him to “stop computer,” “go pee-pee,” then “go back to the computer.” Older children may use a weekly schedule where both parents and children work together to fill the schedule out. This form of communication helps children build organizational skills they’ll need later on in life.
#4 Positive Reinforcement Boards
Positive reinforcement is the act of rewarding or praising the positive behaviors in an attempt to change, avoid, or completely stop the negative behaviors. Just like any other picture board set up, such as Reminder Boards, a positive reinforcement chart is personalized for each child.
The Big Picture
Whether you use choice charts or reminder boards, visual supports will make your life easier by providing structure, routine, improve understanding, and strengthen your child’s communication skills. When introducing the visual strategies to your child, explain what you are going to be using it for. Think about when and where you will be using the visual. In what activities/situations would it be most useful. If you are applying positive reinforcements, make sure they are meaningful and motivating for your child. Be consistent in your use of visuals: children need to see visuals lots of times to begin to understand their use. Make sure the visuals are clearly visible for your child, accessible, and clear. The hardest part may be having patience with your child as they learn new visual strategies. Learning is the repetitive process of discovery and rediscovery and that through practice and patience, you’re child will become more capable and communicative.
Remember that visual strategies are there to help move your child towards independent and confident communication and responsibility. The strategies you put into place will hopefully create schemas (a plan or outline) your child will apply later on in school and life, and your child’s perspective of the world will be shaped by the structures you create for them. This gradual release of responsibility creates capable young people who have learned self-regulation through consistent practice with their family.
Youtube: 5 Ways to Incorporate Visual Supports at Home
For more ways to incorporate visual strategies at home, view the video below and subscribe to https://coachfranny.com
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How to Teach Your Child Self Regulation. (n.d.) Retrieved from April 1, 2021, from
Lester, P. M. (2006). Syntactic Theory of Visual Communication.
Semetko, H. & Scammell, M. (2012). The SAGE Handbook of Political Communication, SAGE
Tips and Ideas for Making Visuals to Support Young Children with Challenging Behavior.
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