Using Visuals to Increase Engagement and Reduce Anxiety
Adults are pretty good at knowing what they need to feel better: a snack, a run, a shower, screaming into a pillow, listening to music. These all fill some sort of sensory need. I tend to like to go for a run. Maybe my body needs sensory input with the pounding on pavement. Maybe I need to be outside where it’s quieter. I’m not fully sure, but I do know that I tend to feel better afterward.
Neurotypical children also tend to consistently let us know what they need.
Neurodivergent children (and adults) may have heightened sensations. Emotional dysregulation is a characteristic of ADHD. Sensory dysregulation is a characteristic of Autism. This is true for both males and females. Some of us tend to “fall apart”, while others tend to “blow up” (or flip back and forth between both).
Neurodivergent children can also experience anxiety.
Using visuals is one way to help increase engagement for work or school related concentration, while reducing anxiety.
Have you ever had a student who “perseverated” on a topic or idea? This is a way of seeming stuck on a topic. This can be a sign of anxiety. Some kids repeat the same phrase over and over because they are feeling anxious…or because they don’t understand what is coming next. Visuals tend to help in this scenario.
Including visuals with information for completing a sequence can potentially increase the independence of the student you’re working with. If designed well, it can help the student to understand the order of steps and what it means to be finished. Sequences can be used at home while getting ready for the day, ready for bed, or completing chores. At school, sequences might be used for independent work. This is a great way to increase life skills. You can find visuals for bathroom and hygiene in my TpT Store. There are also several visuals that don’t require printing on amazon.
The simplest safety visual you can find and use is a stop sign. You could put these on doors as a reminder to stop and wait, the oven, anything that is off limits. Sometimes this simple cue can make a big difference in everyday safety. I have free stop/go visuals in my TpT Store. You can also find larger ready to use versions on amazon.
Feelings and Needs
Recognizing and identifying our feelings and what we need to stay regulated can be challenging for any of us. One way to help neurodivergent students to identify their own feelings and needs is to model yours. “I’m really tired…I think I need to rest.” Having visuals to go along with this can be helpful in teaching students to recognize and use these independently.
Alexithymia: difficulty identifying one’s emotions.
Interoception: perception of sensations from inside the body (including satiety, respiration, nervous system reactions to emotions, etc).
I have a neurodiversity handout set that explains these terms and others more fully. You can find it here.
I like to model for my students using visuals for both feelings and sensory integration needs. I use a “calm down” visual kit to help with these scenarios.
Visuals for “Behavior”
I put “behavior” in quotations because this context is more about communication than disruption. Behavior is communication. When we see dangerous or harmful behaviors such as eloping (running away), biting, scratching, task avoidance, etc. there is usually an underlying reason. It could be sensory dysregulation, not understanding what is taking place, anxiety, not knowing what is coming next, not having access to something needed for emotional or physical support, or inability to access other forms of communication. We should try to get to the root of behavior and determine what’s beneath the surface that we cannot see. That being said, escalating behavior is not the time for teaching…it’s the time for calming down. Once the student is calm, teaching and learning is going to be more likely to work. I like to use visuals such as “name badge cues” during these moments or in an effort to prevent these moments from escalating. You can download a free set of visuals by joining my email list below.
Other ideas for dealing with undesired behaviors or preventing problems during transitions:
- Make or Print a “Pause Card”- most children know this symbol…and it means we stop for a minute, but start again. You can draw it on a piece of paper and put it on an item the student needs to transition from briefly. You can also print a copy here.
- Make a “Later” box for important or special projects or items that the student is concerned about. You can put the item (ipad, lego project, etc) in here for retrieval later.
Most of us do well with a schedule to follow. We often have this as a planner, a classroom visual, a to do list, a calendar, or an app on our phone. In our neurodiverse household, we’ve done well with a combination of visual schedules we can print and digital apps like Brili, Cozi, Alexa routines, and old-fashioned block schedules (checklists). We use Alexa and the cozi app together to sync our family calendar, grocery list, and alarm clocks. In addition to that, we’ve incorporated a variety of printable versions as well.
Controversy over “First Then”. There are some who are adamantly against using first…then types of schedules. I suspect this is mostly about how the visual is used, rather than the visual itself. If you’ve determined that compliance or behavioral styles of practice are not best for your students, consider implementing this type of schedule only as a way to show what is happening now and next, not as a reward system.
A schedule can be a helpful tool. The majority of kids are visual learners. Having a visual schedule in place and cues may help to increase
I also like to make copies of these visuals (and social stories) to share with teachers and parents.
Some students may not be ready for pictures or words just yet. You might consider an object schedule for these students. Carrying an object can help to decrease anxiety and increase safety and success while transitioning from one location to another.