Visual Supports: A Key to Maintaining One’s Day-to-Day Living
Visual supports in the home a key to maintaining one’s day to day living.
When it comes to providing aid and assistance to someone, neurotypical humans use visuals more than we often realize. For families with special needs, visual aids can be life-changing. Adding these supports in the natural environment are a fast and easy way to improve independence, success, and quality of life for both you and your child! From bathroom signs to daily schedules in our online calendars to checklists for home repairs – visuals are key to maintaining one’s day-to-day living. So, we naturally want to teach to them and use them in the lives of individuals.
Visual supports are designed as a sort of “bridge” reminder (or prompt), an imperative step to removing some involvement from others, all the while maintaining independence as best as it can be. If we teach our children to monitor and respond to visual prompts, we remove the possibility of human error. For example, someone does not wake up on time for school because nobody told them to set their nightly alarm. However, a visual schedule on a bedside table is constant, reliable, and won’t error in reminding them that they need to set their alarm. It also removes the need for monitoring and allows individuals independence with supports. Although visuals don’t leave someone fully independent, they are widely used by many different types of people!
There are several types of visual supports that are easy to use and can increase success on a variety of tasks and activities. These supports include visual schedules, calendars, checklists, behavior charts, first-then boards, or step-by-step directions (e.g., for washing hands). While using visuals, it’s best to include all team members involved when determining what supports to include and where to include them. This can be the learner themselves, parents, therapists, and teachers. You can choose whether or not the visual is appropriate for home, school, and/or work environments. When getting started and evaluating what supports might work for you or your team, we suggest looking at daily routines or activities where your child needs some help or has difficulty completing all the steps but gets easily distracted.
Visual schedules: these can be used for children with different ability levels and can be simple, only needing 3-4 activities.
Daisy is a 5-year-old who just started kindergarten. She really struggles with her new daily routine of waking up early and getting out of the door on time. Her parents set up a visual schedule with pictures lined in order of her new routine, with a clip that she moves down the line as each task is completed. When she completes all of the tasks, Daisy gets to have her iPad for 10 minutes before she goes outside to wait for the bus, which is very motivating to her.
Behavior charts: Behavior charts are visuals used to track where we are at on our goals. For instance, a behavior chart can look like a point sheet or a level system. They can be used daily, weekly, or monthly. Tip: use smiley faces and/or known pictures if your child is not ready for points. These are a great way to keep track of when they will earn their reward!
Josh and his brother get into fights. His mother put in a behavior chart consisting of a circle with 5 colors. The color green is the one the boys want to be on so that they can get a lollipop at 12pm and 5pm. Every day both boys start on yellow and must work their way to green. If they are getting along well, they go up in color. If they fight or hit each other, their mother will move their clip to a lower color. If the boys are on red, they must go to bed early. This helps Mom keep track of where the boys are at in the day behaviorally and can help her visualize when they are doing well.
Calendars: we all likely use calendars every week to remind us of our own tasks we need to get done that week. Tip: use of colors, icons, and stickers can help learners new to calendars to differentiate between weekdays and weekends.
Joe’s parents sometimes struggle getting him on the bus for school. They decide to put a weekly calendar in his room so that he can see which classes he has that day. They found after putting the calendar in that he struggled more on days with multiple math classes. They incorporated a “special dinner” for Joe only on the days with a lot of math classes to help motivate him to get through the day. He can now check the calendar each day to know when he might have a hard day, and he doesn’t refuse to get on the bus anymore.
First-then boards: the point here is to have a visual of what we can look forward to after completing a hard task. First-then boards should be used for activities that are immediately following each other versus an upcoming reward such as a vacation or trip.
Dinnertime is a struggle for Shaun as he doesn’t always like what his dad makes. Shaun’s dad always has his favorite desert on hand to encourage him to eat healthy meals. His dad has a large “First Dinner, then Dessert” board that sits on the wall next to the dining area to remind Shaun of this. Shaun knows he must first eat a portion of his dinner before he can ask for dessert.
Step-by-step directions: also called a “task analysis”, this is a chart or checklist that shows how to complete a routine or activity in easy-to-understand steps. Tip: these can be in written words, visual icons, or a combination of both. Keep only critical information versus tiny details on the task list.
Dana struggles with remembering how to do her laundry. Her mother created a task analysis for her and attached it to her laundry basket. It includes the steps of completing her laundry, from putting dirty clothes and detergent in the washer to taking the clean clothes out of the dryer and placing them into the hamper. This way she knows what step she is on and how to move forward so that she does not mess up her laundry!
Tips for Visual Supports
1. Keep it simple
- Overcomplicating will decrease the success of the visual
- Keep the images to a minimum per page
- Use images that are clear and concise
2. Ties to common interests
- Use characters from movies that play to your child’s interests
- List what is available
- Allow choice!
3. Location easily accessible
- Should be visible in high traffic areas
- Close proximity to the activity it’s used for
- Ensure its easy to see (correct height level, large font)
4. Update regularly
- Monitor regularly to evaluate needs and level
- Ensure interests are still represented if preferences have changed
- Fade out the visuals fast when possible!
5. Keep expectations realistic
- If written words are included, ensure content is at their level
- Might need to break larger long-term goals into smaller goals
- Visual prompts should accompany other teaching strategies and should not be used for goals not yet started
Holly Downs is the Director of Ethical Compliance at [PBS Corp] (https://www.teampbs.com/). and an instructor at Capella University. She is a certified behavior analyst with over a decade of experience in various populations.