two images of visual supports with text 5 tips for using visual supports in the classroom

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Using Visual Supports

How do you implement visual supports in the classroom? Teachers in special education can sometimes feel overwhelmed with using visual supports with students. Visual supports are there to do just what they say-support. The purpose of using visual supports with students in special education is to enhance their day. You should find that using visuals will increase communication, help with transitions and overall make the school day run more smoothly.

using visual supports in your special education classroom

What are the Benefits of Using Visuals for Children?

Using visual supports is probably one of the most important things that you can do in your special education classroom. Using visuals actually has so many benefits for children both with and without disabilities. Visuals can help to provide structure and routine, avoid frustration, improve understanding and even give opportunities to communicate with others.

Even in a general education classroom you will typically see visuals on the classroom wall with a schedule and routine. This eliminates the element of surprise for children in showing them what is coming next.

Think of a kindergartner who is hungry for lunch at the beginning of the school year and is still maybe getting used to a full day of school. However, it is math time and the teacher needs that kindergartner to complete their math activity. If there is a visual schedule up, the teacher can remind students that lunch is next when math time is over and physically show them on the schedule instead of just telling them with words.

This can help to increase the child’s motivation right away. In addition, it could possibly avoid a power struggle situation.

what are the benefits of using visuals for children?

Why are Visual Supports Important for Autism?

Using visuals, particularly with students with autism, is a best practice. Visuals can increase independence, decrease transition difficulties, increase positive behaviors, provide clear expectations, increase motivation and provide opportunities for communication, among many other benefits. We cannot eliminate the visual stimuli that our students experience, but we can limit the auditory clutter by using visuals supports! This reason alone is why using visual supports especially with students with autism is highly effective.

Why are visual supports important for autism?

How to Use Visual Supports in the Classroom

If you plan to just slap up a visual schedule on your classroom wall and call it a day, you probably won’t see any changes in student behavior and communication. Believe it or not, students actually need to be taught and trained on how to use visuals to best support them in the classroom. Visual supports can be used for all parts of a child’s day. They can be used for a whole group schedule, small group schedule, positive reinforcement, choices, during specials and more.

Here are 5 of my best tips for using visual supports at school.

How to use visual supports in the classroom with calming boards.

1. Use Visuals to Increase Independence

My first tip for using visuals at school is using them to your benefit! Increasing student independence in your special education classroom is always going to benefit you and your students. I like to start the year teaching my students how to complete independent work stations. Implementing these into my classroom was always a game changer. I taught my students how to complete 3 work tasks in one sitting by themselves.

I kept them organized in clear plastic bins along with task box labels for each. Then, my students had a mini schedule for the task boxes that they need to complete for their independent work. They would simply take the visual icon off of their schedule and MATCH it to the correct task box. I love this because they are even getting the task out themself!

Practice showing students how to do this a lot at the beginning of the year. Once they have it down-this system works really well. It opens up time for you to pull a small group with you while some students are doing independent work.

Grab the Task Box Visual Labels for Independent Work Stations

2. Start with a Daily Schedule

If you are brand new to special education or brand new to using visuals with students, start simple with a daily visual schedule. If you have a general class routine, post that on the front wall in an obvious and clear space for students to see. As you finish different activities throughout the day, either check it off or pull it down so students realize that activity is all done. They can then clearly see how many activities are left until lunch, recess, a break or the end of the school day.

Some teachers prefer to set their morning and afternoon schedules separately, which is completely fine. Sometimes this can be less overwhelming for students. Besides having a whole group schedule, you can simply have each student carry a schedule or post individual schedules on a cabinet in your classroom.

One simple way to do this it to simply grab a piece of colored construction paper and laminate it. Then put velcro in 1 or 2 vertical rows on the front (depending how long the schedule needs to be). Many teachers like to color coordinate student’s binders, schedules and folders which makes it easier for staying organized.

Start with these Visual Schedules

Use visual schedules to have a set routine in your special education classroom.

3. Use Generic Visuals

Having some generic visuals printed, laminated and ready to go at the beginning of the year will be highly beneficial to you. Not all students will need to use all of the different visuals below but having them ready for a time of crisis is always helpful. My room had Velcro walls so I was able to keep certain visuals right at hand. I also stored pieces in laminated file folders or binders with Velcro strips so I could see everything at once.

These are the types of generic visuals that are good to have on hand:

  • First/Then Boards
  • Yes/ no cards
  • I need a break cards
  • Stop Signs
  • I feel and I need cards
  • Portable key ring visuals to take in the hallway or to specials, recess or lunch
  • Calming books

Grab the Visual Starter Pack for your Special Education Classroom

4. Support Students in Specials by Using Visuals

I don’t know about your students but going to specials, whether it was adapted or not, was a difficult time of day for many of my students. I believe specials can be difficult for a multitude of reasons. Specials are a short period of the day, the schedule rotates and students must transition out of the room. In addition, now they must remember the rules and routines of a different teacher besides you. No wonder there tends to be so many behaviors during music, art and PE.

Art projects can be especially challenging for students with autism. The sensory experience and fine motor requirements can lead to anxiety and frustration. Because of this, I know better than to just put a pile of supplies in front of my students and expect anything but a mess at the end. But there’s good news! 

Setting expectations and providing visual supports can help you reduce some of the challenges. This is why I began using a small schedule during art class to show students the exact steps they need to complete to finish the project. It might look like a First, Next, Last board or may be more detailed such as a First, Next, Then, Last board.

Upon these boards, I will post visual pictures of the steps. For example, it might show students that they need to: First color, then cut, last glue. Trust me when I say this will help student’s with their endurance and also independence during specials! Read this post to for some tips on using visuals in PE.

Grab these Visual Supports for Specials:

Art Visual Supports and Schedules

PE Visual Supports and Schedules

Music Visual Supports and Schedules

Use visual supports during specials such as music, art and PE.

5. Use Visual Choice Boards

When students are resistant about something in their day, nine times out of ten, it is typically because they feel as if they had no choice or say in it. When kids are at school, they are told what to do all day long. This can be difficult for some children more than others. Giving visual choices can eliminate these types of behaviors and also increase communication opportunities.

For example, before beginning a non-preferred task, show students a visual choice board and ask them what they would like to do after their work is completed. They may point to the picture of the trampoline or iPad time or something else appealing to them. They will put their choice on their choice board to complete the sentence: “I am working for __.” This is their way of communicating their needs to you, especially for any students who are nonverbal.

You can use choice boards for other things besides what they’re working for also. Ask students to choose the visual icon for what color paper they want or what they want to do at recess. Choice is a very powerful thing for kids!

Grab the Visual Choice Boards in the Classroom Starter Pack

Autism Visual Supports

Having the correct visual supports in place can make or break your school year. Using visuals in an autism or special education classroom is the best way to set students up for success. You can grab each of the items listed separately above or you can grab all of the visuals that you need in the Autism Visual Supports Bundle.


What tips do you have for using visual supports?

5 Tips for Using Visual Supports in the Classroom