The words 5 reasons why visual supports should be in every educators toolkit over the image of symbol cards and a reward chart

Hi. My name is Rachel and I have a minor obsession with visual supports. In my defence, there’s so much evidence that they’re a good idea I’d be silly not to love them!

Maybe you’ve never used visual supports before, or maybe you have but you’re not quite sold yet. If that sounds familiar then this post is for you. Here are 5 reasons why visual supports should be in every educators toolkit:

Visual short-term memory is a strength

Research tells us that, for students with intellectual disability, visual short term memory spans are likely to be similar to that of typically developing peers. This tells us that visual memory is an important strength for our students and we should be incorporating it as much as we can.  Research also tells us that while verbal short term memory is likely to be impaired for all students with intellectual disability, students with Down syndrome experience significantly more impairment in this area than students with intellectual disability of other etiologies. So – if you’re working with a student with Down syndrome the use of visual supports is especially important for you!

They turn abstract into concrete

A common area of difficulty for students with intellectual disability is the understanding of abstract concepts. Think time, number, emotion – anything we can talk about but not touch, hold or manipulate. By using visual supports we are able to provide some concrete substance to these concepts. Maths manipulatives help students connect the word and symbol to objects and images of facial expressions connect the language of emotion to known experience.

They provide static information

This one is pretty simple. If I was to share information with you by speaking you’ve got a split second to take that information in and then your working memory is responsible for the rest. You need to remember what I’ve said while you’re processing it, creating understanding, and working out how to respond. If I were to provide a visual support to that information you would have a constant reminder throughout the process – information that stays available to you for as long as you need it.

They simplify the message

Sometimes we need a reminder to break things down, simplify our language, and leave out the fluff that gets in the way. The development of visual supports are a perfect opportunity for this reflection as we need to establish exactly what the key components of our message are. You’ll find that if you’re engaging in this process frequently it becomes a great habit and your communication will become far more targeted and clear.

They are SO easy!

Visual supports can be as simple or as complex as you want them to be. If you have access to a piece of paper and a pen you could make it work. Most commonly we use programs like Boardmaker for their brilliant symbol sets and templates but there’s no reason you couldn’t whip up a quick word document with the text and images you need. Prefer to do things on the go? There are so many brilliant iPad apps to help you build them electronically. Time Timer, Visual Schedule Planner and Pictello are our favourites!

Our next post will look at some specific visual supports that we love and use regularly. In the meantime, I've developed a poster you can download (for free!) to support teaching the concept of being a good friend. Enjoy!