Using Visual Strategies to Improve Behavior
Using Visual Strategies To Improve Behavior
Children with special needs sometimes have difficulty remembering what is expected of them or deciphering cues from their social and physical environment. Frustration and confusion can interfere with children’s learning and participation in daily activities, as well as contribute to challenging behavior. Visual strategies can help parents overcome these difficulties.
Visual strategies provide more permanent, concrete information than verbal instruction. They help clarify expectations (e.g., what, when, where, who, how long), as well as promote choice-making (i.e., clarifying what items or activities available) and communication. They also support task completion, sometimes providing examples of final work products, and maximize independence in general.
Visual strategies often incorporate a variety of items to make circumstances more understandable for children. The items used may include objects, pictures, and symbols. If children can read, they can rely on written words, phrases, lists, or brief explanations. Below are examples of common visual strategies and tips on how they may be used.
Organization refers to arranging objects or the layout of a room or area. It also involves removing items that may be distracting or otherwise problematic. For example, you might place all needed hygiene or cleaning products where they are needed, as well as remove toys and other items that are unrelated to the activity. You might set up bins for particular items, labeled with pictures of what should go in them. And finally, you might establish physical boundaries (e.g., by putting tape across a threshold you do not want your child to pass. Simply organizing space effectively and making sure the right items are present can improve behavior considerably. As an example, notice how this ‘mud room’ is organized and labeled so that children know exactly where items should go.
Oftentimes, children are passive or misbehave because they do not know exactly what they should or should not be doing. Establishing expectations means clearly laying out what behavior is appropriate. This might mean posting household rules, with pictures to illustrate them as needed. The rules can be simple and straightforward such as “Use your words” or “Pick up after yourself” or more detailed such as written social stories that outline exactly what to expect in a situation. Expectations can also be tied to rewards (e.g., behavior charts that have items or activities that may be earned for rule-following).
Choice menus are helpful for children whose behavior is motivated by getting particular items or activities. On a choice menu, you can place miniature items or parts of the items (e.g., labels from packages, pieces from a game), pictures of symbols, or words or phrases. Children can then point to items or remove them and hand them to you to request them. Symbols of items and activities that are not available may be removed or moved to a separate area, clarifying that they are off limits – at least for the time being. See how the daughter in this video uses pictures to select her snack.
Visual schedules show children the sequence of expected events. They are particularly important for children who need a higher level of predictability or become anxious during transitions. Schedules can show activities within a particular time block (e.g., morning routine), full day, weeks, or even months. As with other visual strategies, you may use objects, pictures, or words. The most important thing is that the schedule is understandable to your child and encompass the time frame he or she needs to understand. It is often helpful to “Premack” visual schedules, meaning that you follow less preferred activities with those your child enjoys and/or have the child remove symbols of completed activities from your schedule so that he or she knows when an activity has been completed. In the following videos, you will see how the parents teach their children to use schedules that include pictures and words, helping clarify what to expect.
Work systems are often effective for clarifying more complex tasks such as homework and household chores. These systems organize the needed materials for easy access, include lists or schedule to clarify the routine, and provide visual indicators of completion of each step (e.g., a “done box”). When teaching your child to cook, for example, you could provide them with a recipe with ingredients listed or displayed in order, pictures of the steps and/or finished item, a timer to track length of steps (e.g., time in oven), and a place to discard used ingredients.
These and other visual strategies can help your child participate more fully in daily life. It is important, however, to emphasize that these strategies must be individualized (e.g., by using symbols they can fully understand or setting expectations that are reasonable). Using visual strategies children do not need to be successful can create unnecessary dependence or disrupt the flow of typical daily routines. Children must also be taught to benefit from visual strategies, explaining and modeling their use and rewarding children for following through.
Related: [SPECIAL BEHAVIOR ISSUE]
Meme Hieneman, has a Ph.D. in Special Education and is nationally certified as a behavior analyst. She has published a variety of articles, chapters, and books including “Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior.” In her professional career, Meme has worked with children with severe behavior problems for more than 20 years.
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- How Positive Behavior Support Can Work In A School Setting
- A Parent’s Roadmap to Improving Challenging Behavior With Positive Behavior Support
- Reinforcement: Improving Behavior One Interaction at a Time
- Cultivating Support for Your Child’s Challenging Behaviors
- Bookshelf Essential: Parenting with Positive Behavior Support
- Can Your Thoughts Impact Your Child’s Behavior?
- Getting Involved with Positive Behavior Support at Your Child’s School
- Finding Common Ground: Working Together to Resolve Behavioral Challenges
- Parenting with PBS: Resolving Children’s Behavior Problems More Effectively and Efficiently
- Getting Ahead of the Game: Changing Behavior and Family Life
This post originally appeared on our March/April 2018 Magazine