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Bright Futures

Articles and Updates from Phoenix Children's

May 08, 2023, Dr. Randi A. Phelps ,
Using visual supports at home
Mother and child drawing pictures together

What are visual supports?

Visual supports serve as helpful reminder tools. They may include a checklist, sticky note or calendar. Another example of a visual support is placing your bag or purse near the front door, so you don’t forget it when you leave. Visual supports are commonly used with adults. I use visual supports every day and would be lost without them.

Visual supports are also extremely helpful for children. If you’ve ever been in a kindergarten classroom, you may have seen a laminated chart outlining all the day’s activities (e.g., arrival, story time, snack, music, outdoor play). Sometimes the teacher uses Velcro stars to indicate when an activity is complete. This is a visual support! While visual supports for adults are often written, many are picture-based for children.

Should I use visual supports with my child at home?

Visual supports can be helpful for all children. However, visual supports are especially effective for children with developmental delays and those still developing or who don’t have verbal communication skills. In addition, visual supports are useful for children with neurodevelopmental differences, such as autism spectrum disorder or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Generally, children are still learning to follow routines and are developing their skills to stay on task. While a parent may be able to keep the steps of a bedtime routine in their mind, children sometimes have a harder time remembering each step, especially if they are easily distracted or don’t enjoy the task. Making a checklist for your child may help increase their independence in daily routines and increase effective communication. Pairing this checklist with verbal praise and/or a prize for completion, such as a sticker, will increase the likelihood your child with follow through on the task.

Visual supports can also include physical items that your child uses to help them effectively communicate. Some children have a hard time verbally or nonverbally requesting help. In this situation, you could create a printout of a raised hand and then teach your child that the raised hand means “help.” When your child needs help, encourage them to request help by using their Help card. Again, pairing this with verbal praise and a prize will help them learn the concept more quickly.

How do I teach my child to use visual supports?

Without effective teaching and practice, visual supports are just a piece of paper. Each visual support requires an assigned meaning. Teach your child exactly what the visual support means. In the Help card example, your child will need your help to use the card in the beginning. Describe the meaning of the Help card, and find a designated place for it. Then, when you see your child needing help, ask, “Help?,” as you assist them in pointing to the Help card or handing it to you. As your child touches the card, say, “Help.” Then say, “You need help? I’ll help you. Great job asking for help!” You may need to practice this exercise several times before your child begins to do this independently.

The same is true for visual schedules or checklists. You’ll need to teach and practice using the schedule. Your child likely will learn to use these more independently over time. Practice and consistency are key. Without practice, your child may not grasp the concept. Without consistency, it is unlikely your child will actually use the visual support. It takes time. Please note that some children pick up on this quickly while others need practice for weeks or months.

Make sure your child has quick access to communication cards (such as “help” and “break”). Some families place a few visual cards on a keyring so their child can carry it around with them. Others prefer to have visual cards taped on the wall for their child to point to. It’s important for you to decide what works best for your child. Visual schedules or checklists are most effective in the environment where the activity takes place. For example, if you create a toothbrushing checklist, keep it on the wall in the bathroom.

How do I get started?

Identify one routine or one goal for improving communication. It is tempting to try multiple visual supports at once, but I encourage you to keep it simple so your child can learn the concept of visual supports. You can search online for premade visual supports. There are many websites that provide free visual schedules, checklists, and communication cards. It is okay to use something that is already created; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You can make your own, especially if you cannot find a schedule or checklist that includes aspects of your child’s routine. If you don’t have a printer at home, simply draw your child’s visual supports. Public libraries in the Valley also offer reduced-cost printing.

Visual supports are an effective way to improve a child’s communication and independence. Some kids enjoy being part of the creation process (e.g., picking out or drawing the pictures), which may increase their interest and desire to use a visual support. Have fun with it!

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