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Using Visual Cues to Communicate and Give Directions

Found In: classroom management, routines & procedures

Visual cues can help you communicate with students of any age, from preschool to high school. To convey information to my students, I use two types of visual cues - actual signs of laminated paper or card stock - with images, words, or color) and American Sign Language.

Here are some examples of the ways I use visual cues in my work as a speech - language therapist:

  • Signing "wait, sit in seat please" to the entire class while I verbally respond to another student's urgent need for my attention
  • Holding up a yellow card indicating the class is getting too loud
  • Using a photocopy of my handprint to indicate a "high five"
  • Using a "chill out" card for a student who is escalating to a meltdown
  • Encouraging students to use ASL to communicate with others

Laminated Word Signs

Students with language-processing difficulties need fewer, not more, words to respond to, so I often use laminated word signs to communicate with them. It's quick and it's quiet.

Students with language-processing difficulties need fewer, not more, words to respond to, so I often use laminated word signs to communicate with them. It's quick and it's quiet.

I make laminated cards with key words or photos for sit, quiet, walk, go, settle, stop and I put them on a key ring with a coil. I can attach it to my classroom key lanyard or a belt loop, so they're handy. When one of my cards seems to be losing its effectiveness, I try a couple of things. I experiment with different pictures illustrating the same concept. And I vary my timing.

Color-Coded Signs

To quietly signal the class to be aware of or change their behavior, I use color-coded signs -- yellow as a caution that the students are getting too loud and red to indicate we need to stop everything and calm down and begin our work again. I use a green sign to indicate that the class is working appropriately. (I use laminated squares of 8½"x8½" color paper.)

To quietly signal the class to be aware of or change their behavior, I use color-coded signs -- yellow as a caution that the students are getting too loud and red to indicate we need to stop everything and calm down and begin our work again. I use a green sign to indicate that the class is working appropriately. (I use laminated squares of 8½"x8½" color paper.)

I keep the green sign in a particular space on the dry erase board. I take it down when I’m getting ready to switch over to the yellow. Of course, I can’t always make it over to the board to pull the green sign. So, I carry the yellow or red sign with me when I’m walking about the room and I’m not near the board.

"High Five" and "Thumbs Up" Signs

Sometimes, when one of my middle school special ed students does something well, he or she will say, "give me a hug" or "can I have a hug?" but it is inappropriate because the student is too old. A more age-appropriate form of congratulations would be a "high five." So I made a photocopy of my handprint for a "high five" and a black line drawing of a "thumbs up." I created these because students get tired of hearing "good job."

Sometimes, when one of my middle school special ed students does something well, he or she will say, "give me a hug" or "can I have a hug?" but it is inappropriate because the student is too old. A more age-appropriate form of congratulations would be a "high five." So I made a photocopy of my handprint for a "high five" and a black line drawing of a "thumbs up." I created these because students get tired of hearing "good job."

I also use the cards for "anticipatory guidance." Some middle and high school students, for example those with Down syndrome, continue to want to "bear hug" because they have been hugged so often for the simplest of accomplishments from preschool years. It is hard for them to switch away from this and to understand that their hugs now hurt or are inappropriate because of their age. So when I see a situation in which a student is doing well and I sense that he or she should be congratulated for a job well done, I hold the "high-five" or "thumbs up" card with my verbal "way to go" to interrupt their tendency to go for the bear hug. I gradually fade this out and just go with the sign language of an actual high five or thumbs up, but these cards get the student to think about what I am saying and they teach more age- and peer-appropriate ways of being positively reinforced.

"Chill Out" Signs

Some students prefer simple line drawings; others need actual photos, so I vary the signs. On the "chill out" card, I use the words as well as a picture because I always want to keep literacy in there. I'm currently using a drawing of a shivering student with chattering teeth -- like a comic book character.

Some students prefer simple line drawings; others need actual photos, so I vary the signs. On the "chill out" card, I use the words as well as a picture because I always want to keep literacy in there. I'm currently using a drawing of a shivering student with chattering teeth -- like a comic book character.

Varying the Look and Timing of the Signs

Many of my students have moderate to severe forms of mental retardation (MR) and autism and major behavior problems, so I've found that varying the look and timing of the signs can be helpful.

Many of my students have moderate to severe forms of mental retardation (MR) and autism and major behavior problems, so I've found that varying the look and timing of the signs can be helpful.

Some students prefer the routine of always seeing the same picture on the card, but there are just as many who need a change from time to time because they like novelty. When I sense that a student is no longer intrigued by a specific card, I switch to a different picture illustrating the concept.

I also vary the "timing" of displaying a card. Sometimes I whip out the card rapidly like a magician, which causes the student to quickly focus visually. Or I deliberately delay showing it, to build up anticipation and visual focus.

Although I vary the look and timing of the signs, I'm not constantly switching cards and I don't have a whole shoe box full of cards.

Making and Using the Cards

I go through the ads in the Sunday paper pullouts looking for photos or caricatures that demonstrate a particular concept. I look for images that show the emotion I want to get across -- for example, to illustrate "happy," I might choose a photo of a person jumping for joy. I cut out the photos, glue stick them on paper, type out the words, glue stick them on, and then laminate the whole thing.

I go through the ads in the Sunday paper pullouts looking for photos or caricatures that demonstrate a particular concept. I look for images that show the emotion I want to get across -- for example, to illustrate "happy," I might choose a photo of a person jumping for joy. I cut out the photos, glue stick them on paper, type out the words, glue stick them on, and then laminate the whole thing.

I leave cards in each classroom. I do inclusion rather than "pullout" speech therapy, so I place 3 or 4 of these cards in each room on the chalkboard rail, in a drawer, or on top of a counter, so they are available as soon as I walk in. It is also a subtle way to get the teachers to buy into this use of visual cues paired with auditory cues (rather than just using auditory alone).

I rotate the cards when I feel that they are not working as well as when I first introduced them. I also carry smaller versions on my key ring and keep some on the classroom key lanyard. What is cool, too, is that teachers who used to escalate a student's poor behavior by raising their voices with "Would you all just stop the noise," now see how I use the cards as quiet, discrete visual cues, and they are now using them.

American Sign Language (ASL)

I also teach and use ASL in my classes. It gives me another tool for communicating with the students, and it gives them another tool as well. Occasionally, I have a student whose fine motor skills are so delayed that he or she may never be precise in movement, so I accept an approximation of a sign. I smiled when I noticed one student with moderate mental retardation (MR):

He sloppily but quietly signed "stop" in a classroom one afternoon and the other student immediately stopped burping in class. Teachers had been trying for weeks to decrease this behavior with verbal reprimands, since the burps were loud and often enough to be disturbing to others in the class.

It is encouraging to see a student provide corrective feedback to a peer in a quiet way, to be understood, and to generate a change in the other student's behavior.

I want my students to learn and use American Sign Language because then they will be able to communicate with future teachers, therapists, hospital workers, parents, and group home counselors. These signs are standard. Anyone can look them up in a reference book.

When I worked in elementary schools, some of the kindergarten teachers who had one of my students in their class started using American Sign Language with the entire class. Kindergarten teachers are inundated with demands, "tie my shoe, I want to play on the computer, can I go to the bathroom," but they can handle many requests at once by "multi-tasking" using signing. One teacher I worked with used this system very well:

She was simultaneously talking to a parent who dropped in unexpectedly and discreetly signing back "Yes, bathroom," "Yes, play," "Go helper" (to ask the paraeducator to tie the shoe), and so on, without interrupting her conversation with the parent.

This teacher saw the possibilities because she saw me signing to one of my inclusion students when he was sitting in morning circle to "sit," "say" (meaning raise your hand and give an answer), "no touch," and "watch."

I really have enjoyed using visual cues —- both laminated signs and ASL —- because they offer so many benefits. They help me communicate with my students, my students communicate with others, and other teachers communicate with their students. Sometimes, one teacher sees another using visual cues, inquires about it, and the next thing you know, all the teachers in that department or grade level want to learn about using simple visual cues in the classroom. This alternative way of communicating and giving directions is less disruptive than saying the words out loud, and the result is a calmer, less distracted class.

About the Author

Sue Nelson-Sargeant is a speech-language therapist in Spotsylvania, Virginia. She works in the Spotsylvania County Public Schools in the Chancellor High School Special Education Department. She began teaching in 1976 and is now teaching some of the same students she taught when she coordinated the local infant-toddler program.

 

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