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Using visual strategies to support learning

Visual strategies are often key to supporting school success for students with exceptionalities such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and learning disabilities; however, they also support communication and content area learning for all students in classroom settings, especially those who have difficulty processing verbal information. Research has shown their ability to promote the development of students’ self-regulation, literacy, and numeracy capabilities. In this article, Kimberly Maich encourages more widespread use of visual strategies in all classroom, and offers practical examples of how they can be applied.

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RUSSELL SAT in the middle of the Kindergarten classroom’s carpet for the first ten minutes of a large block of free time, picking up lint and thread from the carpet while lying on his stomach. For a few days now, the classroom’s early childhood educator had been observing him and chatting with him about some potential options for learning through play. She was having no luck with helping him make choices, so decided to try something else. Remembering that some students can be overwhelmed by free choice, she grabbed her markers and a square of Bristol board, and sketched out the art centre, the water table, the bins of math manipulatives, the outdoor classroom, and the light table, while Russell watched from the sides of his eyes.

“Russell,” she said, “here are some things you can try,” and went through the choices on her quickly-drawn choice board, pointing to each one while she briefly labelled each choice, ending with, “You can pick one, and if you don’t like it, you can pick something else.” With his attention—and understanding—captured, Russell got to his knees, and then his feet, and went off to his choice of activities.

Educators use visual, auditory, and kinesthetic strategies to help students access information and develop skills. Visual strategies are often key to supporting school success for students with exceptionalitiessuch as Autism Spectrum Disorder and learning disabilities; however, they also support communication and content area learning for all students in classroom settings, especially those who have difficulty processing verbal information.

Visual strategies use structured materials that present information and tasks in a visual format. Numerous examples exist in inclusive schools (e.g. hand-washing steps), with documented benefits in communication, social skills, motivation, making transitions, and more.

Visual strategies:

  • Are evidence-based
  • Help with independently accessing curriculum
  • Accommodate diverse processing lengths and styles
  • Are suitable for varied ages and stages
  • Support all students who benefit from a range of everyday differentiated instruction.

In addition, they can be used to enhance both basic skills like matching and sorting, and complex skills such as developing social abilities. Visuals can be created “on the fly” to take advantage of teachable moments or designed proactively with the intention of regular use (e.g. anchor charts). For example, when Russell’s ECE developed a choice board in the middle of a teachable moment, she made sure she had Russell’s attention, she pointed out choices on the choice board with few words but lots of gestures, and she gave him time to process the visual information she knew he could understand – simple line drawings of familiar classroom resources. Next, the educators in the classroom could develop choice boards with other options, using more study materials, for other situations – like recess – or other materials – like photographs.

Asking key questions helps ensure the effectiveness use of visual supports. Consider: Does the visual strategy enhance the learning experience? Provide ample direction? Support transition to task independence?

Visuals for structure

 When students can easily navigate space, they can better focus on academics, and fewer problem behaviours emerge. Typically, structural strategies are centred on environmental arrangement, such as using bookshelves around a reading area or blue bins for math manipulatives where, “materials are organized and presented in a planned, sequential, and logical way.”[i] While this is part of everyday best practice, it can be essential for students who need clear visual instructions.

From fine motor activities to academics, tasks can be structured with built-in cues that decrease verbal prompting and increase independence. Two keys are to keep only related materials contained together and include visual hints like models, written instructions, jigs (cutouts or outlines) and other cues (e.g. arrows, lines). The materials to be organized can be as simple as a Kindergarten block set, or as complex as a high school autoshop tool collection; the principle of providing an unambiguous structure remains.   

Visuals for task organization

 Visual strategies provide powerful opportunities to support developing organizational skills. An example of a visual tool for organization is a schedule, which can provide an overview of a school day, block of time, or task. All students benefit when a teacher provides a written agenda for a subject. A task schedule providing step-by-step visual guidelines can help with more complex tasks (e.g. a visual organizer for lab reports).

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These visual organizational supports are not only immediately helpful, but can also foster the development of long-term organizational abilities. The early adoption of visual strategies can help students develop the cognitive ability to develop their own visual organizers. This strategy is also effective for more challenging secondary school studies – for example, a poster providing an overview of paragraph writing can be part of developing schema for essay writing.

Visuals for motivation

 Although it would be be great if students were always internally motivated to succeed, some students need concrete motivators in – and beyond – the classroom environment. Here, too, visual strategies can help.

A first/then board, for example, is built on the Premack Principle[ii]: any more preferred activity (then) can be a motivator and reward for a less-preferred activity (first). For example, Shea might need to, first, write a page in her journal – a task she doesn’t much like – then enjoy ten minutes practicing math facts on the iPad, which she loves. When you know the general preferences of your class as a whole, the flow of the day can be based on first/then principles. Depicting these on a visual (that students can help to create) makes this practice concrete and easy to process.

A Power Card is another option that helps to build motivation, typically by the presence of a character that an individual student enjoys. Power cards are playing-card sized, with a motivating character on side (e.g. Spiderman), and a prepared script to practice on the other. This brief script usually focuses on a few points that help a student with performing a skill – often a social skill – that may be impeding successful peer interactions. For example, if Quinn is struggling with waiting his turn, we might teach him to take turns the Pokemon way (since he loves Pokemon). His card would read: “Wait for your friends to have a turn. Ask, ‘Is it my turn now?’ Say, ‘I’m done’ when your turn is over. Play games the Pokemon way and everyone has fun!“[iii]

For teachers who utilize a token economy to provide rewards for skills and/or behaviour (tokens are earned for target behaviours and/or skills, then cashed in for reinforcers), a token board tracks progress in a visual, concrete way. Token boards can be used individually or for a class-wide collaborative effort, but the rewards must be meaningful.

Visuals for self-regulation

 Even self-regulation can be supported with visual strategies. A break card is a positive, non-disruptive way for students who need a break from a classroom task to “take five.” Depending on the boundaries developed, the card will allow a timed break from a task, a situation, or a setting. Break cards are efficient and effective: the key is to respond quickly and positively to their use, and then expect a return to the task at hand.

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For students who are overwhelmed by open-ended, unstructured choices, a choice board is a good option. Choice boards provide build in structure by visually presenting a limited number of options – for example, three or four recess activities. All offered choices must be possible; in other words, the response any choice is, “Yes.”

A versatile tool is The Incredible 5-Point Scale[iv] which reduces “abstract ideas to simple numbers.” It helps both kids and their caregivers identify how they are feeling, and what they can try to feel better, learning self-regulation skills along the way. Stress levels can be shown on a scale from 1-5 with visuals, descriptions, and strategies. The scale can be used for many different situations, not just stress management. For example, a 5-point volume scale, linked to familiar scenarios (from calling a friend outdoors down to speaking to your classmate beside you), can help students to understand when to raise or lower their voices. Dimensions like “Looks Like,” “Feels Like,” and “I Can Try . . .” can be added to help with emotional understanding and strategy selection.

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USING VISUAL STRATEGIES in the classroom provides students with the tools to be academically and socially successful at school. Research has shown their ability to promote the development of students’ self-regulation, literacy, and numeracy capabilities. Individualized visuals can be used to support specific students, while classroom-wide proactive approaches benefit all students. Visual strategies should be considered in all aspects of teaching, including assessment, instruction, and classroom design, as well as in a range of subject areas. While many teachers already instinctively incorporate some visual strategies, more purposeful and comprehensive use will provide the most effective support.

Open Access Visual Tools

Numerous online, open access options exist to support classroom teachers with developing visuals to be used in inclusive classrooms.

Visuals Engine (www.connectability.ca/visuals-engine) provides online tip sheets and videos as well as templates to build customizable visuals using an optional embedded database.

Visual Aid Gallery (www.visuals.autism.net) includes tips sheets, videos, and templates  in French and English.

PictureSET (www.setbc.org/pictureset) provides ready-to-use visual resources and activities  focusing on topics like school and community.

Photos: Courtesy Kimberly Maich

First published in Education Canada, December 2016

[i] Vera Bernard-Opitz and Anne Haubler, Visual Support for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company, 2011). 

[ii] Developed by David Premack in 1965.

[iii] Elisa Gagnon, Power Cards: Using Special interests to motivate children and youth with Asperger Syndrome and Autism (Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company).


[iv] Kari Dunn Buron, The Incredible 5-Point Scale (Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company, 2003).

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