Organizing our environments with visual supports

Have you ever felt lost in a new store? Have you ever been to a foreign country and not been able to understand the language around you? What did you do? Naturally, people start looking for visual cues to understand the unfamiliar. In the store there may be signs and labels for the aisles to help understand where to find things or at a restaurant you may rely on the pictures of food items if you aren’t able to understand the words. If these visual cues are absent it makes it harder to navigate the environment or understand expectations. Consequently, you are more likely to disengage and not be as willing to put yourself in that environment again.

Now put yourself in the shoes of a five-year-old in the classroom setting for the first time or a high school student that has a new schedule and multiple teachers with different routines. Without visual support, the student may be anxious about what’s next, how to find things, what the teacher wants them to be doing, etc. The more visual supports and routines we can put in place for students will reduce anxiety and allow them to be in a better frame of mind for learning.

Visual supports come in many forms and help to organize our environments. As adults, we have found things that work for us, such as calendars, post-it notes, and labels or signage. Each person finds what works for them. For example, handwritten calendars vs digital formats, or the use of words vs pictures. This is equally important to remember for students. We need to help students find the best supports and organization that meets their individual needs on their worst day. Supports may come in the form of schedules, labels, notes, checklists, file systems, etc. The support is a good fit if it allows the students to be more engaged and independent throughout their day.

Often students can navigate through the day relying on memory or routines they are familiar with. But, what if they are dysregulated on a particular day? They may have missed a few days of school, might have had a substitute teacher, missed breakfast, or fought with a sibling before school, any of which may make it more difficult for them to stay engaged and be independent. On those days, having supports in place to organize the environment can help them to stay focused and less anxious. Staff at Central Rivers Area Education Agency (AEA) are available to help teachers, families and the students find the right level of supports to organize and make meaning out of their environments to better support them daily.


Jennifer Cline is a special education consultant

and member of the well-being and assistive technology teams at Central Rivers Area Education Agency (AEA).


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.38/week.

Subscribe Today