10 ways to use visual supports in your special education classroom

When teaching students with special needs, using visual aids are soo very important.  It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, whether its Math time in the classroom or brushing your teeth at night, using visual support systems for students with special needs is vital to their success. Even typically developing kids and adults, rely on symbols and pictures every single day.

Students with disabilities, especially those on the Autism spectrum, rely on visual supports to help them throughout their day.  Let me share some ideas of how I incorporate visuals in my self-contained classroom.

Disclaimer:  this post may contain affiliate links to Amazon.

1. Visual Schedules

Whether you use symbols, objects, real photos or just words, you need to have given students access to visual schedules all day long.  The type of schedule you use should meet the needs of the students.   Some students in Kindergarten will need large vertical schedules using pictures and words.  Or you may have a high school student that needs a written schedule taped to the inside of their agenda.  Some students need a classroom schedule posted somewhere on the walls of the room.  While others may need a horizontal object schedule at their desk.  Special Education can be tricky, you need to find which schedule meets the needs of the students.  You can read more of how I use visual schedules here.

2. Transitional Visual Supports

Students often struggle with transitions, especially students on the spectrum, and although visual schedules help, these students need more visual supports to help them through.  When the bell rings, students are often told to “check their schedules”, but pictures speak louder than words.  Using a “check schedule” picture card as a cue to help transition them to the schedule.  These can significantly decrease behaviors and students are happy to comply.  Other transition visuals that I have used is a “pause button”.  Read the blog post I wrote all about “The Power of Pause” and how this is used!  When I worked at the primary levels, we also used transition objects to get students from preferred activities to preferred activities.  Something that is really working for my son right now are transitional objects. Just a small toy that he can hold in his hand, like a little helper to get him to where he needs to be. 

3. Visual Timers

Students with disabilities, like us, want to know how much time is left when completing an assignment or activity.  In my class, we use visual and auditory timers, called Time Timers, which helps students visually see how much time is left and can see the time disappearing.   In the past, I have also used an online timer that I would display on the SMARTboard.  I have used sand timers and liquid timers as well.  Being able to see time “disappear” is the key!

4. First/Then Chart

Students with disabilities like to know what’s coming next, which we use a visual schedule for.  However, when a student needs extra support, this type of visual aid comes in handy. 

This is used to shape behavior.  I put a picture of the activity under “FIRST” and the picture of the incentive that they are working for under the “THEN”.

For Example, Jacob just finished putting his stuff away and needs to start his morning work.  He checks his schedule but doesn’t seem to want to go to the area that the morning work is located. 

The teacher would grab the “First/Then chart” and put ‘morning work’ under the FIRST part. 

The teacher would ask Jacob what he would like to work for (or the teacher may already know what he wants). 

Jacob may respond with “the sensory bin” or maybe the teacher gives him a 6 option choice board. 

Then the teacher places onto the “THEN” part of the first/then chart. 

Jacob is much more likely to complete his work and transition to the work area if he can see what he is working for and knows what’s coming next.

5. Token Boards

A token board is a great visual to help students see their progress and to see when the activity will end.  Once a student masters waiting, staying on task, and no longer needs immediate reinforcers, they are ready for a token board.  Check out these ready-made token boards!

6. Checklists

End of the day checklists, AM routine checklists or even small “to-do” lists help students with disabilities organize their thoughts, organize their physical space, become more independent and develop necessary executive functioning skills.


7. Behavior Visual Supports

Using behavior contingency maps, visual behavior contracts, 5 point scales, power cards or “I need a break” cards are all fantastic visual supports to help students with behavior.  Students need to have visual reminders of what is expected and how to ask for help.

8. Clear Expectations

Students need visual posters around the room to remind them of what is expected of them.   There are so many options for this, but some can include:

  • carpet expectations
  • classroom rules
  • keyring behaviors reminders
  • computer expectations
  • desk reminders
  • behavior reminders inside agenda

9. Classroom Signs

Visuals should be in places that students have access to them and that they are needed, that includes classroom signs!  Don’t crowd your walls with unnecessary junk.  We used a giant stop sign on our door because of elopement issues.  We used a giant visual interactive word wall,  to open and close the computers we would use large “open and closed” signs or even blankets to throw over them.  I have even seen teachers use cardboard to divide physical space and have a giant hand on it that said STOP!

10. Communication

Lastly, communication so very important.  If you have students that are low verbal or non-verbal in your classroom, it is imperative that they have means to communicate.  Be sure that you have CORE boards or communication boards available to students who are having difficulty with communicating their wants and needs.  You could also provide them with choice boards to provide them with opportunities to select a different type of incentive or activity.

7 ways to use boom cards in the special education classroom

Even though visual aids are often used with a child with Autism, because they are such visual learners, visual aids can support anyone.  They allow students with disabilities the chance to focus, to express themselves, reduce anxiety and assist with transitions.  Visual Aids bring structure and routine into the special needs classroom.

If you are looking for a resource packed with Visual Aids, check this out in my TpT store.
Or you can pin the blog post here for later:

I am a High School, self-contained Autism teacher from Central New York, who is passionate about individualizing student learning. I am a mommy of three, lover of all things Disney, married to my best friend and addicted to chocolate!! I hope that you find great ideas and inspiration here, so welcome!!

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