This post is Part 2 of Best Practices for Visual Supports for students with autism and related communication learning challenges.
Creating visual tools does not need to be difficult. But there are some important decisions that can make a difference in how effective they are for helping students achieve success. Here are two features that I get lots of questions about.
What size should pictures or visual tools be?
The simple answer is. . . .it all depends. Of course, the most important factor is to use a size that students connect with and pay attention to. Here are a couple of examples.
I joined my granddaughter Bella in her first grade (regular ed) classroom for grandparent’s day. Much to my delight, her teacher had a schedule on the board in the front of the room. In this class, the students sat at their desks while the teacher manipulated the schedule pictures. Sitting next to Bella, I couldn’t see the pictures. In fact, I don’t think any of the students sitting behind the first row could see them. Good try, but teacher missed the mark.
I was consulting with a preschool teacher who decided to use more visual strategies. She had about 30 little 2X2 black & white pictures posted randomly in her classroom in various locations for various purposes. When I observed the students, I could see they weren’t even paying attention to the pictures. They didn’t even see them.
Another teacher that I consulted with confessed that she and her staff stopped using most of their visual tools because they were too big and bulky to carry around everywhere.
I did a little research.
I sent a survey to several hundred people who used visuals. I asked them what size pictures they used. Here’s what they said.
Visuals for individuals can be smaller.
If they are creating visual tools for individuals, 2X2 is the most common size used. The “other” sizes that people use most are 3 1/2X5 or 4X6 photo size.
I would describe visual tools for individuals as something that the student holds or manages himself like his own schedule or his own communication book or choice board.
Visuals for the group need to be bigger.
These same educators use larger visual tools when more people need to see them. Again, the “other” category is photo size pictures.
This makes a lot of sense. When more people need to see something that is farther away, it needs to be bigger.
One more comment about size.
I haven’t seen any specific research on this, but after years of observing hundreds of students, this is what I know. Younger children or lower skilled students generally need larger formats to capture their attention. As students get older and become more capable with visual tools, size becomes less important for their understanding. Then size becomes more important for convenience and mobility.
Another question that is asked regularly.
Should you use vertical or horizontal layouts? People want to know which is better. Does it make a difference?
Sometimes people tell me they make their schedules horizontal because they think that will help children learn left-to-right for reading. I’m not aware of any research to support that theory. (And I’m not sure that trying to teach that orientation here will translate to reading a book.)
Many visual tools are created in a vertical format. They seem to work fine. Somehow most children have a natural sense about top-to-bottom.
Logistics affect decisions.
Sometimes that vertical VS horizontal issue is determined by the logistics of the environment. For example, if the teacher wants to use the chalkboard ledge to stand up the schedule pictures, the display will have to be horizontal. A picture strip posted on the bathroom wall may need to be vertical because of the limited space.
Clearly define the beginning.
What may be more important than vertical VS horizontal is making it very clear where the student should look first. I have seen visual displays that were randomly put up with no real order to them. When students have to try to figure out where to look, they probably won’t benefit from the visual supports.
Summarizing the details.
I haven’t seen research on these topics. If you have, please let me know. It seems that “common sense” would dictate the guidelines, but everyone doesn’t have the same common sense. Each child and each environment may require different decisions. So, here are some basic guidelines.
- Use larger formats when students need to see visual tools farther away.
- Smaller formats generally work for individual visual tools.
- Younger or lower skilled students generally need larger formats than older or higher skilled students.
- Vertical and horizontal formats can both work but make sure it is clear where to start.
And one more thing. . .
If you create a visual tool and it works. . . .smile. If you have a visual tool that isn’t accomplishing what you want, look at what needs tweaking. It is a bit like the story of Goldilocks. Remember her?
She tasted the porridge from the first bowl.
“This porridge is too hot!” she exclaimed.
So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.
“This porridge is too cold,” she said.
So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge.
“Ahhh, this porridge is just right,” she said happily and she ate it all up.
(Thanks to whoever posted this picture online & called it “The Goldilocks Principle”