The Power Of Visual Tools To Support Children With SEND

Communication is a tricky business for any young children. They are just developing their language skills and are learning to both understand, and use, spoken words. When a child has additional needs, chances are they find communication even harder.  

If a child is unable to communicate using spoken words, it is likely to affect them in at least one of two key ways: 

  1. They don’t understand what is being communicated to them. This means that they might not know what is happening and when – and therefore don’t understand key information such as when they are going to be collected and see their main carer again. This can make life feel scary and out of control. Needing to know what is happening in their day is particularly important for someone with autism who might struggle with change.  
  2. They can’t communicate their wants and needs to you. This leaves them feeling hugely frustrated. When we are frustrated, our behaviour changes.  

So, what can we do to help children with SEND in our setting? We can give them an alternative way of communicating.  

Understanding The Importance Of Alternative Communication For Children With SEND

AAC stands for augmentative and alternative communication and refers to any means of communicating outside of using spoken words – so, for example, sign language, facial expressions, physical prompts and using signs and symbols. One alternative way of communicating is to use pictures or visual symbols, and here are a few reasons why pictures make such a great way of communicating for small children, especially those with SEND: 

  • Pictures are much easier to process than spoken words. Words disappear as soon as they are spoken, leaving someone trying to remember and process what has been said. Pictures just stay where they are while a child makes sense of them.  
  • Pictures have no tone of voice. Saying an instruction in different tones of voice can sound like completely different instructions and complicate things for someone struggling to understand words. Pictures don’t have this complication.  
  • Pictures can be carried around with you, meaning a child has a consistent communication method with them. This can be transferred between home and your setting if needed. 
  • Pictures communicate routine and transition, which is important for those with autism and anyone who struggles with change.  
  • Pictures are universal across all languages and therefore are great for supporting children with English as an Additional Language.  
  • Pictures promote independence by showing someone what they need to do, without relying on you telling them.  

Implementing Visual Supports: Practical Strategies

Now that you understand why pictures or symbols make such a great alternative method of communication for those with additional needs, here are some ideas of how you could use them to support children with SEND in your setting: 

  • Display a visual timetable in a key area for all to see – this will allow children to understand what is happening in their day and therefore reduce anxiety. Children can then feel calm and settled because they know what to expect. Knowledge is power, after all, and many of us hate it when things feel out of control. 
  • Use a Now and Next board to show just the next two things coming up. This is useful if showing the whole morning on a visual timetable is too much information, and is also a great way of supporting a child who struggles to transition from one activity to another.  
  • Have each member of staff carry a keyring or lanyard of symbols so that they can communicate a key message to a child in a clear, simple way. Children can also use these to communicate with you.  
  • Have a Feelings Chart so that children can both learn about emotions and express how they are feeling. This helps you to understand their behaviour because, as we know, all behaviour is communication.  
  • Have a Communication Board in a set place on the wall so that a child always knows there is somewhere they can go to point and communicate their wants and needs.  
  • Display signs of where everything is, again providing reassurance to a child that they know their way around your setting.  
  • Display visual reminders that encourage independence, for example, pictures of handwashing.  

Using visual communication consistently in an early years setting is key to allowing all children to feel confident in their knowledge of what is happening and where things are. It is also so important to have them to hand for when times become trickier. Many parents of children with SEND report that when their child becomes stressed, they lose their ability to use or understand language, therefore it is important to always have visual symbols to hand so that you can communicate in a clear, simple way when emotions are heightened.  

You’ll see that many of these methods are relevant for all children in your setting, not just those with additional needs. After all, very young children are just developing their language skills, so visual supports are going to support this process. Beyond this though, some children utterly depend on the security of seeing what is happening and knowing that they have a way to communicate with others. Visual communication is useful for all children, but essential for some.  

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