Hello! My name is Kristin Wiens. I am a special educator living and working in Victoria, BC. After years of working with school teams supporting students with special needs, I have seen a common denominator for building independence, reducing anxiety and increasing student success has been the consistent use of visuals. The great thing is, all students (and adults) benefit from using visuals. I have also noticed a subtle resistance to using visuals or a strong desire to reduce the use of them as soon as the team sees some success. I felt like visuals were unfairly thought of as a form of dependence instead of begin celebrated as a wonderful form of independence, so, I have decided to promote visuals in a fun, creative way….by making visuals to promote visuals, of course.

workshop photo

I have declared 2016 “The Year of the Visual” for myself. I hope to create one visual promoting visuals each week and posting it here. I hope to gather and share stories about how visuals have been used successfully in the lives of people with or without special needs.

Week 1 – Visuals: I See What You Mean


We all use visuals everyday: calendars, to-do lists, computer icons, traffic signs and signals, maps, instructions and more. Many of the students we support are visual thinkers and/or have language processing delays. Visuals allow more communication to happen throughout the day with less anxiety. Visuals are a permanent reminder for our students. Visuals allow your student to literally “see what you mean.”

Week 2 – Breathe Deeply And Use Visuals

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When students’ anxiety is heightened it is a good idea for both the adult and the child to focus on a few long, slow breaths. The adult can model this and hopefully the student will follow their lead. At the very least keeping our own anxiety down when students are heightened helps everyone. Students pick up on our energy and if we are able to model calmness, it can be an invitation for them to calm themselves.

Equally important to note, when students are in an anxious state, their ability to process language is greatly reduced. It can be so helpful to use visuals and reduce (or eliminate) the amount of words that are coming at the student. Many of our students have a challenge processing the language around them even when they are self-regulated; expecting them to process language when they are dysregulated is not kind or helpful.

It is important that visuals are introduced and used regularly when children are calm and regulated. This is the time they can learn what the visuals mean. When a child is dysregulated it is less likely they will be able to process and understand visuals they are seeing for the first time. If they have seen the visuals regularly during self-regulated times, they are more likely to recognize and respond to visuals when they are stressed.

Week 3 – May Your Coffee Be Strong and Your Visuals Be Close


Your morning coffee (or tea) is part of your routine: comforting, predictable, reliable.

Visuals provide these same things for your students: routine, predictability, and comfort. Remember this next time you are tempted to “not bother” with the visuals or to not go back when they are accidentally left behind.

Having visuals close at hand can make a positive difference for transitions, unexpected events, and for motivating students through non-preferred activities.

Coffee and Visuals – a great combination!

Week 4 – A Great Day Starts With a Positive Attitude and a Good Set of Visuals


I believe that every student (and every adult) deserves a fresh start each day. Every day holds new possibilities and opportunities to grow. When we start each day with a positive attitude, we increase the chances that we will see and embrace those possibilities and opportunities.

Visuals also allow students to start a fresh day on knowing what to expect and what is expected of them.

Wishing you a wonderful, positive start to your day!

Week 5 – Visuals Unlock Potential


When students are able to follow a visual schedule or a set of visual instructions, they are far less dependent on adult support and prompt leading to greater independence. This skill can be transferred to many other opportunities for students and be expanded upon helping students (and adults) realize even more of their potential.

Special thanks to Tania Stearns-Smith for the photo.

Week 6 – Visuals Speak Louder Than Words


It is a wonderful thing to be able to communicate without raising your voice. Visuals allow you to do just that. Visuals can communicate without the sound of impatience or irritation in your voice. If you are in a loud or busy environment, visuals can communicate consistently and calmly. Even more importantly, visuals speak longer than words. Visuals continue to communicate long after the spoken words have disappeared. Once again in noisy and/or busy environments this feature of permanency that visuals offer can be a blessing to children who take longer to process or are easily distracted.

Visuals: calm, consistent, effective communication.

Week 7 – Visuals: What’s not to love?


Visuals are reliable and consistent.

Visuals are good communicators.

Visuals are always there for you when you need them.

Visuals provide comfort when you are anxious.

Visuals stay by your side through the good times and the bad times.

Visuals don’t judge and don’t raise their voice.

Visuals bring out the best in you.

Visuals help you reach your goals.

Visuals there’s so much to love….

Visuals help students cope with schedule changes and unexpected events.

Remember: Introduce and teach visual strategies when students are calm and focused so that they are familiar with them when their anxiety and/or stress levels are heightened.

Week 8 – Life Happens, Visuals Help


As much as we try to keep things consistent and predictable for our students, life often has different plans. These unexpected events and changes can cause some of our students anxiety and stress. When anxious or stressed students are less able to process language. Having visuals ready to help bring some predictability back into their world can help:

  • ·         Visuals showing them the new schedule (visuals schedules, first/then visuals)
  • ·         Visuals showing how long an unexpected or stressful event will last (time timer,           countdown strips)
  • ·         Visuals showing self-regulation strategies (breathing cards, deep pressure                 techniques, movement breaks)

Here’s the important thing to remember: Visuals need to be introduced and taught to our students before the unexpected event. When students are stressed or have heightened anxiety, they are less able to learn new things or process new information.

  • ·         Introduce and teach the visuals while students are calm and able to focus
  • ·         Spend lots of time with visuals throughout every day even, or especially, on               good days…those days when it seems they “don’t need them”

Visuals, for whatever life throws your way…

Week 9 – Shhhhhhhh, Use Visuals


Many of us in the field of education, myself included, are talkers. We give instructions verbally. We tell stories with words. We have conversations to discuss and solve problems. We chat about ideas.

The problem is, many of our students struggle to process verbal language. This is where visuals can play an important role. Here is the important thing to remember: when you introduce visuals also reduce the amount that you are talking. Point to the visual and say less. I often see people using visuals with students and talking the same amount…now the student actually has more to process – the visuals and the continued language.

Trust the visuals; enjoy the silence.

Week 10 – Visuals O’Clock


Visuals help reinforce directions, routines, expectations and communication.

Visuals are often forgotten or removed from situations when students have been considered successful. I recommend leaving visuals in place, even after they are ‘successful’. Here are three reasons to consider:

1) on a bad day or when skills seems to decrease, the visuals are still there to support the learners;

2) when the level of skill for a task is being increased or the learning is moving to the next level, visuals provide a solid moving forward point;

3) visuals transfer success between staff members – routines that are solidly in place with one adult can be transferred to a new or different adult.

Any time is a good time for visuals.

Week 11 – Visuals: A Simple and Convenient Alternative To Repeating Yourself

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Do you ever get frustrated saying the same thing over and over to your students or children? If so, visuals might be just the thing to try. Visuals provide students with a permeant record of what you have said. Instead of asking you for the information again, they can refer to the visuals. Create visuals of your common routines and schedules. Provide directions and instructions visually.

If you are passing along information that isn’t part of your routine, taking the time to draw a quick visual or to write down the key points could save a lot of time and frustration in the long run – for you and the student.

Visuals: a simple and convenient alternative to repeating yourself all day.

Week 12 – Visuals

week’s blog (posted a week late – oops!) is a Long Story Shortz stop motion video created by Paul and I. Here is the YouTube link:

Share the link with others. Help us circulate this important message.

Week 13 – The Road to Independence is Paved with Visuals

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Students can be supported to learn tasks and skills with the help of visuals. Showing steps visually can support students in learning tasks with less dependency on adults.

Once students have learned the skill of following visual scripts for one task, this skill can be generalized or transferred to new and different tasks. We consider students independent is they can follow a visuals script on their own.

Visuals can be faded or they can remain in place forever. Many of the visuals we use every day are permanent features – think of calendars and stop signs. The goal is to not be dependent on another person.

Step by step, visual by visual students can travel down the road to independence.

Photo Credit: Ben Barry

Week 14 -Two & Ten


Processing time is important for all of us and critically important for our students with any language processing delay….lots of our students. “Two & Ten” is a quick term to remind all of us to limit the amount of information heading towards a student (visually and verbally). Say two words or phrases – or show two visuals, then wait for at least ten seconds. Try counting in your head to keep track. It can feel like a long time and we are often tempted to start talking again before enough processing time has been provided.

Here is a short phrase to go along with the visual:

“Two & Ten until you talk again; Two & Ten to comprehend.”

“Two & Ten” is just a guideline. Every student will need different amounts of processing time and will have different tolerance for more or less words. Try it out and see if you notice increased comprehension and decreased frustration/anxiety.

Put a few of these 2 & 10 visuals up to remind yourself throughout the day to provide more processing time for your students.

I am blessed to work with an incredible group of talented and dedicated professionals. This week’s visuals was created to support an initiative that one of our teams at work created. The team consists of two Speech and Language Pathologists and two District Education Assistants. They were happy to share their ideas with you. Thanks Deb, Angie, Lynne-Mari and Suzanne.

Week 15 – Samples: I See What You Mean


Samples are a great example of visuals that most teachers already use. I would encourage you to use them even more. Reconsider when you think: “They don’t need a sample for this…it just makes sense.” Often it doesn’t make sense for students for a variety of reasons:

  • they were distracted when you explained it
  • they don’t process verbal language well
  • they were anxious because it was an assignment
  • they were distracted by peers
  • and even those without language processing delays can simply forget

A sample can be a permanent reminder of their goal. Many of our students would benefit from a sample that they can keep with them until they have completed the assignment.Samples help set students up for success.

Sometimes people worry about “copying”. Ken Robinson says that what we consider copying in school, others outside of school consider collaborating. Copying is often the first step on the long road to mastery. When I explore a new art style, I often start by “copying” what someone else has already done. As time goes by, my projects become less and less like the sample and more my own style.

Week 16 – Visuals Light the Way


My friend, Josh, was working with a young man, Bill (*name changed for privacy) with FASD in Bill’s home. Josh was helping him develop strategies to support his goal of living on his own. They had been working on laundry skills for several weeks. Even though Bill had put his clothes away for many months, he still needed prompting and the task took much longer than expected.

Josh decided to try using visuals on the outside of the clothes drawers to help John know where the clothes needed to end up. With this simple strategy Bill suddenly became much better, and quicker, at putting his laundry away.

Here’s the best part: Bill was able to tell Josh how the strategy helped him. He said, “Before the visuals were there, it was like I had no ideas what was in each drawer. I had to open it and look inside every time I went to put something away. With the visuals, it was like someone turned on the light and I knew what was in the drawer.”

What a beautiful description of how visuals help support independence

Week 17 – Always Make Time for Visuals


There are two parts of this statement that are equally important:

  1. First, the word always refers to the fact that we need to use visuals consistently, not just sometimes, and especially not just “when they are needed.” Students need lots of time with visuals throughout everyday so they learn how to use them and they learn to trust them. “When they are needed” usually means that a student is having a difficult time – often with transitions, sensory needs or self-regulation. This is not the time to introduce visuals or to bring out visuals that have hardly ever been used.
  2. Secondly, visuals take time to create, set-up, review and process. When you plan your day, remember to start with enough time to have the visuals you need created and ready. (Remember that if you don’t have a computer made visuals, a quick hand drawn sketch on a post-it can work as well.)Throughout the day, take time to refer to the schedule often – building familiarity and trust with the visuals. Finally, remember that students need time to process the information that is being presented visually. It is better to slow down and allow the student to navigate the day calmly with the support of visuals than to push them through more things with our words, bribes, threats or manipulation. Allowing them to navigate through the day with visuals leads to greater independence in the end.

Visuals: worth the time and effort.

Week 18 – Visuals Leave a Lasting Impression

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There are so many different things that can interfere with information communicated verbally. Students can be distracted, anxious or angry. Other noises in the environment can interfere with communication. Even something as common as having a cold can cause fluid in the ears to make it difficult to hear verbal communication.

In cases where a student actually heard the information two other factors can have a major impact on whether the student is able to use or act on the information: language processing and memory. Once information is heard many students need time to process what is being said – visuals can help. Often the student is also required to do something with the information and therefore needs to keep the information in their working memory – once again visuals can help.

Visuals allow a student to refer to the information as often as is needed. Often adult is not required to repeat information when visuals are used.

Visuals last longer than spoken words.

Week 19 – Make Today Ridiculously Visual

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I sometimes hear people worry that students will become too dependent on visuals. It has been my experience that our students need continued use of visuals to become and stay independent. The alternative is often that they are dependent on adults. The thing is…it is sometimes harder to see this dependency. People sometimes remove visuals and then offer verbal or physical prompts instead.People are often unaware of how many prompts they are giving students.

Another dependency that is quite common and even more difficult to notice than verbal prompts or physical prompts is “relationship dependency”. Often students’ “independence” is based on a relationship with one particular adult.

Here is what I mean, there are many kind, patient and supportive adults working with students in our schools and communities. They create positive relationships with students and in return students are generally cooperative with them. They navigate their days with minimal struggles. However, when a new person starts supporting the student, behaviours start to surface. Often this is because the student is dependent on the positive relationship with one, or only a few, staff members.

When I see this happening, I encourage the person with the positive relationship with the student to focus on introducing more visuals and routines so that if someone else starts to work with this student there is a greater chance that their success will transfer to the new person. The person with the positive relationship will often not feel the need to introduce visuals because the student doesn’t “need” them when they are working with them, however, this person is in the very best position to teach visuals to students.And likely the student will need them when they no longer work together.

My vote will always be in favour of using more, not less, visuals…even a ridiculous amount.

Week 20 – A Visual Schedule is Worth a Thousand Words


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Visuals schedules are great for most students but are essential for students with language processing difficulties. It is easy to understand why: If a student struggles to process words, fewer words will always be better. Visual schedules allow us to use far fewer words (sometimes no words at all) to communicate important information to students.

Visuals schedules are great for two main reasons. Not only do students have fewer words coming at them, they also have a permanent record of the communication to refer to whenever they need to. And of course, the greatest reason of all is that for students with language processing difficulties, communication actually happens with visuals…which is our ultimate goal.

Week 21 – Visuals: because talk is overrated

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I was at a workshop this week and was reminded of these statistics about how messages are communicated:

  •          Body Language      55%
  •          Tone of Voice          38%
  •          Words                     7%

This reminded me that visuals can play an important role for communication with students – especially during tense times.  When students are struggling to stay in control of themselves, it can be difficult for the adults who are supporting them to keep their tone of voice and body language calm and supportive.  Sometimes we are nervous of about our own safety or the safety of other students.  At times we are simply frustrated that the day is not running as smoothly as we would like.  There are many reasons that we may struggle to keep our body language and tone voice supportive.

Visuals can offer communication that does not involve body language or tone of voice.  In fact, visuals may allow you to step further away from the student and give them space. This may be just what they need to de-escalate.  Visuals allow you to communicate clearly with the student without adding the stress of having to process words, body language and tone of voice.

Visuals: because talking is overrated

Week 22 – Students Hear Your Words & Understand Your Visuals

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This visual was created by my friend and Education Assistant extraordinaire, Lynne-Mari. It beautifully sums up one of the main benefits of using visuals.

We can get frustrated at times when we know that our students have heard the words we are saying and yet are not responding to them as we feel they should. It can help to remember that just because a student is able to hear your words, does not guarantee the student has processed your words. Visuals help increase the chance that our message is understood – not simply heard.

Week 23 – I need to…use visuals

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Whenever you catch yourself (or others) repeating the same thing over and over or getting louder and/or closer to try to get your point across, it is a good time to consider visuals. Even if you find yourself slowing down often to get your message across, you might want to consider using visuals. All of these communication patterns can be highlighting the fact that the person to whom you are speaking has trouble processing spoken language. Visuals might be more effective and more respectful.

Week 24 – Keep Calm and Use Visuals


When students behaviour starts to escalate become aggressive or violent it can be difficult to remain calm. Visuals can help your communication remain calm, at the very least. Visuals also allow communication to continue while also giving the student the space they may need to self-regulate and start to calm themselves.

When a student is calming down it is often difficult to know when you can start communicating with them without re-triggering behaviour. Visuals can be a less threatening way to get your message across without aggravating the situation by talking too soon or getting too close. Make up visuals reminding the student what self-regulated behaviour looks like (quiet voice, calm body and hands). Add visuals of strategy options for calming down (walk to the water fountain, count to ten, sing a song in your head, take long, slow breathes).  For some students, visuals about how to re-enter the classroom or support room can help (enter room quietly, join others with what they are doing,  raise your hand for help).

Week 25 – Visuals – because frustration is bad for you

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Sometimes we get frustrated when we have to repeat the same information over and over again. This can be especially true when it comes to having students remember to bring along the supplies they will need for the next activity.

When it is time to go to gym class, does your student constantly forget to bring his or her gym bag or gym shoes? When they show up for class in the morning have they forgotten to bring a pen with them or their text book? This is a great opportunity to use visuals.

Create a visual list of supplies to remind your student what to bring with them. Post it in their locker, in their binder or on their visual schedule. It is highly likely that forgetting these items is also frustrating for your student. Visuals can help reduce frustrations for both of you.

Week 26 Visuals – I See What You Mean


The beginning of a school year is a great time to introduce more visuals to your class.

Many of us use post-its to remind ourselves of what we need to remember to do or what we need to remember to bring with us. Visuals serve the same purpose for our students – a gentle reminder of routines and expectations. With basics routines and expectations posted with visuals there is more mental energy left for unexpected or deeper level thinking.

Maybe you could write yourself a note on a post-it to remind yourself to make a few more visuals

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