Enhance Access in Inclusive Settings with Visual Supports

Becky Dees

Educational Consultant

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

As students in inclusive settings now represent a wider variety of learning styles and needs, teachers are required to make classrooms more accessible for those with learning differences. By providing supports for organizational, communication, social, and emotional regulation skills, we can better equip such students to be successful there. Using visual supports is an evidence-based strategy for teaching and maintaining these “soft skills” that impact success and independence in the classroom.

Visual supports can include visual schedules, reminder cards and cues, and checklists, and can also provide a consideration of the physical environment. They provide clarity, meaning, and organization to students in a way that is more concrete than using verbal language to remind, instruct, or redirect. Greater clarity leads to better understanding. More organization leads to less confusion. Visual supports allow students to access their environment and understand expectations with greater independence. They can be an effective behavior prevention tool as well.

Positivity visual schedule

Organizational Supports

Visual supports can bring greater meaning to the learning environment; they also can help to clarify routines and expectations. Start designing them by taking a look at the physical layout of the classroom (or home learning environment) to clarify what activities take place in different spaces. Also think about how to arrange furniture to maximize attention and minimize distraction. Does the reading corner offer comfortable seating? Is the tech area free of clutter? Are students’ desks or tables free of distractions? Are desks arranged in a way that maximizes attention to group lessons?

A daily schedule, whether shared with the whole class or individualized for a specific student, can help to clarify the sequence of events throughout the day. A visual schedule, like the one pictured on the device above, communicates a clear, concrete expectation for the daily order of events and timing of transitions. Classroom routines like arrival, morning meeting, turning in work, and end of day can also be clarified with the use of visual supports. A simple checklist can serve as a reminder of each of the steps in a morning arrival routine (greet the teacher, put items in cubby, turn in papers from home, begin morning work, etc.). Or a reminder card and a clearly labeled bin can be helpful visual cues for students turning in completed work.

Group Talk Work Flow

Communication Supports

Many students in inclusive settings can benefit from visual cues to support their communication skills. Knowing when to initiate a request, whom to ask for help, and how to participate in partner talk are all part of being an active contributor in the classroom, but a lot of students struggle with these interactions. A visual cue can be a simple reminder card placed on their desk to clarify where to go for help or how best to get the teacher’s attention. During turn-and-talk activities, a written list of sentence starters can provide an entry point into the conversation (e.g., “I think _____,” “I like _____,” or “I wonder _____.”). Navigating a large-group discussion can also be challenging. By providing a written list of expectations, students can have a clearer understanding of their role in the group.

Group Talk Example

  1. Raise hand to talk.
  2. Wait to be called on before talking.
  3. Connect your words to the topic.
  4. Share one idea at a time.
Social Narrative

Social Supports

Social interactions can often be the most challenging areas for some students in inclusive settings. Inappropriate social responses can be a roadblock to making connections with peers and forming friendships. Again, when students have greater clarity of expectations, they gain greater independence. Some students who struggle with providing personal space to others may benefit from a clear list of boundaries for behaviors in order to make those often-abstract judgments more concrete. Others may need support in knowing how to initiate conversation and which topics may be most appropriate with peers. When students have difficulty understanding the perspective of others, their social skills can be impacted. Making transparent connections (in writing, with drawings, or with social narratives) between their behavior and others’ feelings can bring clarity to some social situations.

Break Card and Incentives

Emotional Regulation

Visual supports can be helpful in bringing clarity to emotional regulation skills as well. Knowing when a break is needed, how to ask for one, and what to do during one are all key pieces to being able to independently regulate emotions. Having a place in a student’s daily visual schedule for routine breaks can be a concrete way of showing them when one will take place. Allow the student to present a card instead of finding the words to request a break when needed. During break times, clarify the options by providing a list or choice board with activities.

While many may prioritize differentiating academic instruction and materials, the benefit of supporting a student’s organizational, communication, social, and emotional regulation skills cannot be overlooked. In order for students to thrive in inclusive settings, their environment, routines, and expectations need to be made clear to them. Visual supports are an effective way of providing that clarity and enhancing unique learners’ understanding of how they can succeed each day.
About the Author

Becky Dees is an Educational Consultant who specializes in Autism Spectrum Disorder. She has worked as an autism clinician, an educational coach, and a special education trainer. Becky currently works with the autism group in research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Becky received her degree in psychology from UNC‑Chapel Hill.