Using Visual Supports as a Behavior Prevention Tool

Helen Fuller Tarkington, M.Ed.

Advanced Consultant

University of North Carolina

Special education teachers are no strangers to challenging behaviors. In fact, we know they are part of the territory. Believing in and empowering students who present unique challenges and complex needs are what we do best. Sometimes, however, behaviors can feel overwhelming, leaving us drained and unsure of what we are doing wrong.

The saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is certainly the case with difficult behaviors. But sometimes, anticipating and preventing a student’s problem behaviors can feel like a daunting task. As a teacher and educational consultant, I’ve frequently dealt with behavior issues where, at first, I felt as if I didn’t even know where to begin. In those cases, I found that the best way to manage difficult student behaviors was to go back to the basics and take a systematic approach to behavior planning.

Keep an open mind

When completely drained by challenging behaviors, we sometimes feel like we’ve tried everything we know to try. I’ve been there. In these times, it’s essential to step back, clear your mind, and go back to the very beginning. Use a checklist like the one below to ensure you are considering all the changes you could make which may improve your student’s behavior—even little adjustments that may feel slight but could prove to have a powerful impact.

Lean on the entire IEP team

(you are not alone!)

As special education teachers, we sometimes feel alone and isolated, especially when our students have complex needs and disruptive behaviors. During these times, find an ally. Talk to your speech-language pathologist (SLP) or occupational therapist (OT), a program specialist, an administrator, or a parent. Make sure you ask for concrete or specific help so that the team knows how they can best support you. For example, ask someone to observe your student so that you can gain another perspective on what is happening. Next, have that person help you brainstorm possible solutions.

It’s easy to feel defeated when experiencing these kinds of struggles. I assure you, having more than one voice and more than one opinion can be extremely helpful. Asking for help speaks to your strength as a teacher and your willingness to collaborate, so never worry that others will judge you negatively!

Think systematically about changes you can make

Use a checklist or system both to consider possible changes you might make and to document and collect data on those changes. What follows is a list of varying visual supports and suggestions that can all be implemented to help reduce and further prevent the occurrence of challenging behaviors.

SymbolStix classroom

1. Make changes to the physical environment

One often-overlooked type of visual support is the physical structure or environment in which the child is learning. This can have a considerable impact on whether a student can stay focused and attend to their work or whether they may become overwhelmed by extra noise and stimuli. Consider your student’s specific needs and how they might be addressed through your environmental structure or design. Ask yourself whether you might need to:

Minimize distractions

Is your student able to stay appropriately engaged and attend to their work? If not, you might shift the orientation of their desk or where they sit in relation to the teacher when working.

Define areas within the room more clearly

Sometimes students don’t comprehend the expectations in a given situation. Simply by clarifying what is expected within a particular space, you give them concrete ways to understand what you are asking of them (i.e., they may wonder, “Am I working independently now, or is this instructional time with my teacher?”).

Provide a calming space

If you know that a student needs to take breaks regularly, create a dedicated area they can visit as part of a daily routine. Remember that a calming space is not a place to send students when they are really upset, but rather a place they know to visit throughout the day when they need to have some quiet or alone time.

Allow for movement

Some students need movement to reduce anxiety or keep themselves calm and regulated. For these students, try to provide spaces in the room where they can move, jump, or dance. Remember to work movement breaks into your day as a behavior prevention strategy.

SymbolStix checklist

2. Use schedules and checklists to clarify expectations

When students don’t clearly understand expectations, they may grow anxious and frustrated. Often, using verbal language when attempting to explain or clarify things can be like adding fuel to a fire. Instead, utilize your students’ strengths as visual learners by implementing visual schedules and checklists throughout the day to answer these questions:

Does my student understand where to go?

When students are unsure what to expect during the day, a visual schedule can be helpful as a receptive language tool. Students with autism and other communication needs often learn best with visual supports, so objects, pictures, and/or symbols help them better understand where to go at any given point during the day.

Does my student understand what to do?

Checklists and organization systems are more receptive language tools to help ensure that students have a clear understanding of your expectations.

SymbolStix visual prompt

3. Modify work to increase engagement and understanding

As special educators, we are accustomed to modifying work for our students to meet the appropriate academic level for our students. Consider how modifying assignments can also be a great tool for behavior prevention. When work expectations meet them where they are and they understand clearly what to do, students typically are able to maintain motivation and engagement. Here are a few ways to modify work specifically as a behavior prevention tool:

Highlight the most relevant information

Do the directions suit my student’s learning style? Are they visual? Do they make sense? If I have to give too many verbal directions to explain the work, the student could experience stress or anxiety which might provoke a problem behavior. How can I visually show my students what to do rather than telling them?

Simplify work or reduce information that may be confusing

If there are too many problems or too much extraneous information, a student can feel overwhelmed or frustrated. Consider how you might teach the skill or explain a concept in simple, concrete ways.

Add high interests to increase engagement

Students may know how to complete the work you are asking of them, but still may resist the work if they don’t find the task interesting or engaging. Consider modifying work to utilize the high interests of your students. Adding a favorite character to the top of the page or incorporating an interest into the assignment itself often increases engagement with work students may otherwise resist.

SymbolStix I need help

4. Teach your student how to ask for help or take a break

If we accept that challenging behaviors are often just maladaptive ways of communicating needs, then communication instruction should be at the heart of behavior prevention. Ask your SLP for advice, and make sure you are using visual supports to aid in your instruction. Teaching a student how to ask for help when things become challenging or even how to ask appropriately to take a break can be vital skills which will show students that they are not alone and that their requests and needs will be met and validated.

Remember, communication instruction can take a long time, so don’t expect students to know immediately how to utilize a help or break card. Pay attention throughout the day to the times students seem to be struggling and refer back to the visual support with a gesture or even a verbal prompt, such as, “It looks like you need help!”

SymbolStix yoga

<strong>5.</strong> Proactively teach coping and calming strategies

Finally, consider how to build calming routines into the day. These routines should be thought of as prevention tools as well as strategies students can eventually access when they’re upset.

Remember that what calms one student may not be the same as what calms another. For some students, movement breaks like running, jumping on a trampoline, or dancing are critical and should be built into the day before or after work sessions. Other students can learn deep breathing or yoga routines. Others are able to learn self-talk or to use a mantra (“I am strong!” or “I can do hard things!”) which they can refer back to throughout the day when things get tough. Music can also be a powerful calming strategy when things become difficult for a student.

Challenging behaviors can feel overwhelming for teachers. While these behaviors may not improve overnight, focusing on a systematic strategy allows you to objectively step back and make small, incremental changes that can prove immensely helpful and beneficial to your student. Don’t forget to rely on the entire IEP team, and celebrate the small victories when they occur!

About the Author

Helen Fuller Tarkington is a special education teacher who has also worked as an autism specialist and educational consultant. She is a certified Advanced Consultant for the University of North Carolina's TEACCH Autism Program. Her blend of experiences as a practitioner, consultant and trainer has given her a unique perspective and interest in helping teachers efficiently and effectively implement evidence-based practices within the classroom. She holds an M.Ed in Special Education from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.