Five Tips on Using Picture-Based Visual Supports for Students with Complex Communication Needs During Music Instruction

By Lisa Pierce-Goldstein, M.M., M.S. CCC-SLP

Visual supports are an integral part of the day for all of us, from street signs to calendars to scrawled reminders on Post-it® Notes. Visual supports in the form of pictures can be an effective and integral part of music instruction for students with complex communication needs, who cannot rely on speech as their primary means of communication. Unlike manual signs or verbal cues, which are transient, pictures provide a stable form of support, as they are fixed and can be referred to repeatedly. This is especially helpful for students who need extra time to process information. Picture symbol software is not necessary. Some assembly is required. So fire up your smart phone, Google Images, or your favorite word processing and presentation-making software to make:

An image with two columns: the left side is labeled

1. Visual schedules: A visual schedule uses pictures to show the sequence of activities that will take place during a class. For example, for a chorus rehearsal, a visual schedule might consist of pictures representing welcome, warm up, pass out music, practice song 1, practice song 2, put music away, all done.

 

Five side-by-side images showing where to place fingers on an oboe while playing Mary had a Little Lamb.

A visual sequence for the fingering of Mary had a Little Lamb.

2. Visual sequences: The cousin of the visual schedule, the visual sequence uses pictures to depict the steps necessary to complete a specific activity. This can be useful for showing steps for instrument fingerings, changes in body movements for a physical or vocal warm up, or setting up and putting class materials away.

 

This image contains pictures of instruments in small yellow square boxes. The instruments include egg shakers, triangle, maracas, sand blocks, rhythm sticks, bells, xylophone, tone block, boomwhacker, and sound shape.

3. Choice boards: A choice board has pictures of choices available for a specific activity. For example, pictures of several instruments may be presented to a student, from which they could make their choice. A choice board could also consist of pictures of the covers of pieces to be practiced during class or rehearsal, from which students could choose the order.

 

4. Scripts and social stories: Using PowerPoint or Google Slides is an easy way to pair pictures with sentences. Putting several pages together, you can create a script to help a student know what to say and do at an audition. A social story can show and describe what is expected in a specific situation, such as being an audience member at a live performance.

 

A two column image with the word first and a picture of a person singing on the left, and the word "then" with a picture of the Hamilton the musical logo on the right.5. First Then boards: A ‘first then’ board consists of two columns with the headings ‘first’ and ‘then,’ with a picture beneath each word representing the present activity and the subsequent one. It might show a non-preferred activity (practice scale), followed by a preferred one (sing ‘Alexander Hamilton’). This is useful for helping students manage transitions.

To see examples of all of these visual supports, head to Google Images and search. There are hundreds of examples to fire up your imagination. Now have fun downloading, formatting, printing, laminating, and using in class!

 

Lisa Pierce Goldstein croppedLisa Pierce-Goldstein is a speech language pathologist who has spent the past 15 years working with students on the autism spectrum, first in New York City’s District 75 and now in the Boston Public Schools.  She is a classically trained singer and a guest lecturer at Boston Conservatory’s program for Teaching Music to Students on the Autism Spectrum.  She is a frequent presenter at conferences on the topics of augmentative and alternative communication, autism and adapting arts curriculum for students with complex communication needs.  

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