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4 Effective Ways to use Visual Cues in Special Education Classrooms

In a special education setting, promoting positive behaviors is a crucial aspect of creating an inclusive and supportive learning environment. Visual cues, in the form of schedules, prompts for replacement behaviors and appropriate language, and signals of delayed reinforcement, can play a significant role in supporting students with special needs. By using visual cues, educators can enhance comprehension, reduce anxiety, and encourage independence. In this blog post, we will explore four types of visual cues that can be effectively utilized to foster positive behaviors among students in special education.

Visual Schedules: The Power of “First, Then”

Visual schedules are an invaluable tool to provide structure. If you have walked through any special education classroom setting in recent years, you have undoubtedly seen a visual cue in some way labeled, “First ___, Then ____.” This technique involved presenting a visual representation of a task followed by a desired reward. For instance, displaying an image of a math worksheet (“First”), followed by a picture of a game (“Then”) can motivate a student to finish tasks with a reminder of what preferred activities are upcoming.

first then visuals pic for blog 4 Effective Ways to use Visual Cues in Special Education Classrooms

This type of visual can alleviate anxiety by providing predictability in routines. It also promotes a sense of accomplishment as students progress through their schedule! However, as with any of these visuals, simply printing and laminating this cue and slapping it onto a learner’s desk will not yield overnight results without time, repetition, and positive practice! Initially, I like to use verbal reminders (if needed) to pair with these visual cues, and then fade back to simply just touching or pointing at the icons over time as a more discreet reminder. I love that these types of visuals are easy and customizable (for example, I use either pictures or texts, depending on the reading abilities of my learner).

schedule pic 2 4 Effective Ways to use Visual Cues in Special Education Classrooms

With some students, I have found it helpful to include 3 icons at a time (e.g., “First Reading, then Snack, then Music”), or even small icons of their entire morning or school day as an individual portable schedule cue. For other learners, seeing all of their daily activities at once would be visually overwhelming- remember to carefully consider the needs of each individual student before deciding on the most effective visual!

Click here to download FREE schedule visual cue templates.

Visuals for Teaching Replacement Behaviors

Sometimes, students with special needs struggle with appropriate social behaviors. Visual cues can serve as powerful tools to teach and reinforce replacement behaviors. For instance, utilizing visual cues with images depicting desired behaviors (such as sharing, taking turns, or raising hand) can provide a concrete reference for students. In essence, think of whatever skill you would like to see your learner demonstrate instead of engaging in a a particular maladaptive behavior they have demonstrated. Then, select a visual that best represents that skill that you can use to reference when teaching and practicing the skill. When students are sad, anxious, or angry, hearing too much verbal language at once can be emotionally overwhelming.

I like to proactively practice the skill during everyday instructional time, when the student is calm. For example, I might state, “Here is the ‘break’ picture we selected together. Let’s role play- hand me the break card and practice going to the bean bag for 2 minutes for a calming break.” That way, when the learner needs this reminder in a real-life scenario in which they are emotionally charged, simply holding up the picture of the break card can remind them of this coping skill (without lengthy conversation!).

These visuals help individuals understand expectations and demonstrate appropriate actions. By consistently reinforcing the desired behaviors by using visuals, educators empower students to acquire and internalize positive social skills. Click here to explore a variety of different cue cards symbolizing skills such as taking a break, requesting a walk or other movement break, or counting or listening to music.

tpt behavior cue cards pic 4 Effective Ways to use Visual Cues in Special Education Classrooms

Visuals as Alternatives to Verbal Language Prompts

As mentioned, verbal prompts can be overwhelming or less effective for some students. Visual cues offer an alternative mode of communication that reduces reliance on verbal instructions from staff. For example, you may be explaining to a learner who is anxious to run outside on the playground that you need to wait until the entire class is ready to transition. Rather than continuing to repeat, “We are waiting, let’s wait nicely,” or “Show me nice waiting,” I might use a visual cue of a timer. In this way, I can show them what it truly means to wait by slowly placing a visual strip of the timer onto the main background until the timer picture is complete. Similar to the examples above regarding replacement skills, teaching this skill in isolation before using in real-life scenarios is critical! These cues allow students to process information visually, and with systematic teaching and positive practice, they can reduce frustration and confusion.

wait cue 1 4 Effective Ways to use Visual Cues in Special Education Classrooms
small waiting visual cues 4 Effective Ways to use Visual Cues in Special Education Classrooms

Click the image for this FREE visual tool to
practice the concept of “waiting.”

The icons are also available in a smaller size, so that you can clip onto a lanyard for portable use!

Visuals for Teaching Delayed Reinforcement

Teaching delayed reinforcement can be challenging for students with special needs, such as autism or other developmental disabilities. Visual cues can bridge this gap by providing tangible representations of future rewards. Creating a visual token board allows students to observe their progress towards a goal. Breaking down long-term objectives into smaller, more achievable steps using visual cues promotes motivation and persistence. Students can witness visual representations of their accomplishments, reinforcing the value of delayed rewards.

Using a token board, such as this free 3 star token board, you can deliver one token to your learner for each correct answer (or several correct answers), until they reach the goal of three tokens to earn their preferred activity or item. Similar to a token board, a behavior “punch” card can be laminated to then have the stars “punched” with a hole puncher each time the student displays desired behaviors! I like to use this punch card system for students who can wait a longer period of time before reinforcement (but still need a constant visual!) such as over the course of a school day or even across a week.

Click the icons below to browse various forms of visual motivational systems!

token board 4 Effective Ways to use Visual Cues in Special Education Classrooms
punch card cover 4 Effective Ways to use Visual Cues in Special Education Classrooms

Conclusion

Incorporating visual cues into special education classrooms can have a transformative impact on promoting positive behaviors. Cues such as visual schedules, pictures of adaptive replacement behaviors, and delayed reinforcement visuals can offer your learners increased structure and stability, reduced anxiety, and enhanced motivation.

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