Visuals: Are they Gathering Dust?

by Emily Garratt, BA, ITDS, Inclusion Specialist

We as adults rely on visual cues to help us navigate the world. We may use calendars, timers, lists and maps to help guide us in our daily routines. With children, it’s no different! Visual cues provide structure and routine, encourage independence, build confidence, improve understanding whilst avoiding frustration, and reduce anxiety.  The use of these visual cues in our environment enable us to plan, organize and be independent. It also provides us the opportunity to interact and communicate with others. Visuals for children are just as important, as they are just beginning to learn how things work in the world. Visual supports allow communication to become physical and consistent rather than fleeting and inconsistent, like spoken words can be (Gerhardt, P & Cohen, 2014).
Within the early years, visual cues should be embedded into everyday practice and everyday routine. All children require visual cues and they should be used in everyday activities and settings regardless of needs. Visual cues have been found to increase child involvement and they support both receptive and expressive communication (Bryan & Gast, 2000). Visuals are static within the environment, they remain present, where spoken words can be forgotten. They serve as a reminder of the verbal direction. Implementing visual supports within the setting may include visual routines, choice boards, timers, objects of reference or labelling items. These visual supports help the child to communicate, transition, and make a choice and stay on task.
Difficulty in communication can lead to frustration behaviors. Visual cues provide a tool that provides a system for the child to communicate whilst teaching them important daily activities. Using the visuals and adaptions allow children to: participate in activities and routines; gives them supplementary information; empowers them by building on their social skills; attracts and holds their attention; helps express their emotion’s and thought’s; helps to focus on the message; and reduces anxiety. The visual cues allow for communication between the child and their caregiver, enhances memory, supports social competence, provides a reference for directions, identifies expectations and cues for new skills to be learned (CoTD 2012).
There are different levels of communication and understanding, therefore the visuals need to be specific for each child, group, room or setting.
The different levels include:
  • Object
  • Photo
  • Picture symbolic
  • Line drawing
  • Text
(Hogdon, 1995)   Examples of visual cues that may be found and used in the setting may include the following:
  • Choices – Giving a choice of either objects, or photos or cards, gives children the opportunity for socially appropriate power and control. Giving choices can be done throughout the child’s daily routine. A child can choose from two to begin, and then gradually build up to a choice board. They can be used to direct the child, to help calm, to reduce anxiety, and to offer a form of communication for their wants and needs.
  • Now & Next – Using Now & Next or First & Then- Allows for a sequence of events to be broken down, larger tasks into smaller steps and allows for two step activities such as ‘wash hands, snack’. It also can be used to complete a non-preferred activity, can assist transitions and adult led activities, therefore allowing a child to process and complete two step instructions and routines with visual prompts to become independent.
  • Schedule/Routine/Timeline – Using pictures of the regular routine allows a child to become independent, transition into areas, and understand what’s coming next. Teach the child how to use the schedule, (which can be either horizontal, left to right or vertical, or top to bottom), by explaining and modelling. As you move through each task, remove from the timeline and put in a finished box or bag. Use the timeline regularly and consistently and celebrate success.
  • Social Stories – A creation of a ‘story’ for situations can help a child navigate a situation and assist them to problem solve. A social story illustrates the social norms for the child and teaches how to communicate with others appropriately. When producing these personalized stories, the child and adult have a specific goal, the subject is relevant to them, and uses both descriptive and positive language. It can also help teach social norms, improve social skills, learn to emphasize, and reduce anxiety (Tobik, 2020).
  Other forms of visuals that can be used are:
  • Activity sequency cards, such as, washing hands
  • Cue cards
  • Turn taking charts
  • Reminder charts
  • Stop Signs
  • Feelings and emotions
  • Labelling boxes
  • Job charts
When using visuals within early years you need to consider the child’s level of support required, the child’s age, the expectations, and what cues are needed. When introducing visual cues, it’s important to find a quiet area for less distraction, use relevant language, and help the child to participate in the activity by modelling and prompting the child. We should aim to gradually reduce the prompts over time. During the task, monitor the child’s level of independence to determine the adult support needed (Simpson, 2005).
Top tips for Visuals:
  • Portable
  • Durable
  • Accessible
  • Easy to find
  • Personalized
  • Clear pictures with high contrast background
  • Single item pictures
  • Use text with the picture so all adults use the same language.
  • From a child’s perspective
  • Consistent
Within early years, visual cues are required throughout the normal daily routine.  As adults we must help to facilitate this to help the child to become independent.  We help assist the child with the visual prompts, which provides them with appropriate power, social skills, and a way of communicating to have their wants and needs met. This in turn reduces their anxiety and frustration. Visual cues are essential in early years and should be embedded consistently into everyday practice. They should not be thrown in the cupboard and “dusted off” when someone asks, “do you have any visual cues to support this child?”
  • Bryan L, & Gast, D (2000) Teaching on task and on-schedule behaviors to high functioning children with Autism via picture activity schedules. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, (30), pg 553-567.
  • Centre of Technology (CoTD) (2012) Using visual supports with infants and Toddlers. Tots n Tech.
  • Gerharts, P & Cohen (2014) Visual support for people with Autism; a guide for parents and professionals. Woodbine House.
  • Hogdon, L (1995). Visual strategies for improving Communication. Quirk Roberts Publishing.
  • Simpson, R (2005) Evidence based practices and students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on autism and other developmental disorders (20) pg, 140-149.
  • Tobik, A (2020) Resources for Autism;