What Role Do Visual Supports Play in Special Education?

School timetable, an example of a visual support in the classroom.

The Importance of Evidence-Based Practices in Special Education

When you’re working as an educator within the field of special education, it’s important to implement lesson plans that are grounded in evidence-based practices. With evidence-based practices in play, you have consistent evidence from reliable reviews of research showing that the practice produces positive outcomes with students with moderate to severe disabilities.

The Effectiveness of Visual Supports Across Educational Stages

Visual supports are one evidence-based practice for students identified with moderate to severe disabilities that have been vetted and found effective in classroom settings across all ages from preschool through high school. They have been used effectively to teach academic content and social skills, as well as ease transitions between tasks and increase participation, task engagement and independence allowing students to complete tasks and decrease the need for assistance from adults and peers in the classroom.

Maximizing the Visual Aspect of Teaching

As much as possible, make the auditory world of teaching as visual as possible – pair auditory information with a visual.

Practical Tools for Visual Support

Use picture schedules, calendars, environmental picture cues or labeling, visual instructions, visual rules, graphic organizers, checklists and break cards so that everything you expect the student to do can be accessed in a visual format.

Visual supports help to visually communicate what is supposed to happen.

Visual supports can include:

Picture schedules and calendars.

Use objects, photographs, line drawings, and words to build a schedule and put events and activities in order. Daily schedules can be used to represent a part of the day or the entire day. Mini-schedules can be used to represent key components of routine activities (e.g., steps taken when entering a classroom). They allow a student to anticipate what will happen next and reduce anxiety during transitions by providing the student with a structure of what to expect.

Lists and checklists.

Present instructions that are typically provided verbally or steps in common routines (steps of getting lunch at the cafeteria). They can consist of photographs, line drawings, or written words of the correct procedure for accomplishing tasks, such as the necessary steps to complete a cut and paste activity. They provide a permanent reminder of task expectations for students who have difficulty remembering information.

Choice boards.

Depict visually two or more choices of activities a student may choose from at a given time. Use pictures, symbols, text or objects to create the board. Some students will need large icons to look at while other students will want to grab symbol cards adhered using Velcro. Show the student the choice board, and if needed, read the choices and ask the student to make a choice.

Environmental picture cues and labeling.

Indicate specific areas of the classroom designated for certain activities, such an art table, book table, or work table, using photographs, line drawings, icons, and labels with words. They can also be used to indicate what and where to find things and where to return them. Label shelves, drawers, cupboards, and closet doors. Signs, lists, and charts can use these labels and picture cues to teach students expectations, procedures, and routines.

Picture cues.

Teachers can show a picture cue in combination with a verbal script to indicate when the occurrence of a behavior is unacceptable. In one study, a teacher used a picture cue made-up of a line drawing depicting a face with an index finger in front of the mouth indicating “Shhh” to address repetitive verbal interactions between peers that were disruptive. Further, a picture cue card depicting “Can I play?” has been used to increase engagement in inclusive environments and decreased disruptive behavior.

Visual classroom rules.

Photographs or icons coupled with words act as a reminder for behavior expectations and classroom rules.

Break cards.

A physical card that provides a visual reminder that a student can request a break when they are in a challenging situation and need a moment to calm down (the student may be overwhelmed, angry, sad, or overstimulated). They help students learn and practice relaxation strategies and other appropriate ways to self-regulate and help avoid anxiety and outbursts of aggression or self-injurious behavior. Place the cards so the student can easily access the break card.

Timers and audio alerts.

A visual representation of time, with auditory alarm functions to help students transition between activities. They visually show the passage of time making the concept of time more concrete, giving students control over their environment, and avoiding frustration when it is time to transition.

Graphic organizers.

A pedagogical tool that organizes content material about a topic in a way that makes it easier to understand. They include Venn diagrams, semantic maps, outlines, If Then charts and KWL charts.

Choosing the Right Level of Visual Support

Teachers can decide the level of visual representation (object, photo, line drawing, word) based on what is best understood by the student accessing the visual support.

TeachTown’s Commitment to Evidence-Based Special Education Solutions

If you are looking for a special education curriculum or solution for your district that is rooted in evidence-based practices, TeachTown has got you covered. enCORE, Social Skills, Transition to Adulthood and BE SAFE all include the use of visual supports.

Backed by the science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), all of TeachTown’s education solutions are built on evidence-based practices, helping to alleviate the burden of a legal liability, should it arise, while also producing top-notch outcomes for your kiddos.

Head over to our site and review our suite of solutions. You can request a demo for a one-on-one walkthrough of the solutions, where you’ll see how visual supports are implemented throughout.


Cannella-Malone, Dueker, S. A., Barczak, M. A., & Brock, M. E. (2021). Teaching academic skills to students with significant intellectual disabilities: A systematic review of the single-case design literature. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 25(3), 387–404. https://doi.org/10.1177/1744629519895387

Ganz, J. B., Kaylor, M., Bourgeois, B., & Hadden, K. (2008). The impact of social scripts and visual cues on verbal communication in three children with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 23, 79-94.

Johnston, S., Nelson, C., Evans, J., & Palazolo, K. (2003). The use of visual supports in teaching young children with autism spectrum disorder to initiate interactions. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 19, 86-103.

Sam, A., & AFIRM Team. (2015). Visual supports. Chapel Hill, NC: National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder, FPG Child Development Center, University of North Carolina. Retrieved from https://afirm.fpg.unc.edu/visual-supports

Steinbrenner, J. R., Hume, K., Odom, S. L., Morin, K. L., Nowell, S. W., Tomaszewski, B., Szendrey, S., McIntyre, N. S., Yücesoy-Özkan, S., & Savage, M. N. (2020). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with Autism. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice Review Team.

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