Why Visuals Work in Reducing Problem Behavior

Categories: Interventions

In the special education world, we are surrounded by visuals. There are picture schedules, labels, social stories, first/thens, star charts, and more. When you are so far involved in this world, you can sometimes forget the ‘why’ behind these interventions and tools. When you forget the ‘why’ you start using these resources without intention. Don’t arbitrarily use visuals. Use them with intention and purpose for positive results. 

I see too often visuals and other strategies being aimless thrown at a situation. “Why don’t you use a social story?” “Add a break card.” “Use a visual timer.” Those are all valid strategies but shouldn’t’ be used all at once and shouldn’t be used without careful consideration and thought. The strategy should match the behavior and the function of the behavior. Throwing the kitchen sink of visuals and tools is unlikely to promote real and lasting change. 

Why do visuals work for reducing problem behaviors? 

Whenever it comes to decreasing a problem behavior, we always think about the function or ‘why’ of the behavior first. All behavior is communication and this behavior is communicating something. We need to figure out what the behavior is communicating so we can teach a new and more appropriate method to communicate this need. So whether the behavior is get attention or escape a task, a new method of communication may be needed. 

Visuals give a positive way to communicate.

That important step in behavior change is creating a replacement behavior. For some students with limited language skills, a replacement behavior may be using a type of visual to communicate something. The replacement behavior needs to be easier and more effective than the problem behavior. Verbal language is hard and a struggle for some of our learners. We want the replacement behavior to be easy – so visuals may be a good fit for many students. 

Visuals show the rules and when changes in behavior should occur. 

You and I are constantly adjusting our behavior based on the context around us. We change the topics we talk about when we talk to our best friend versus a professor. We change the volume of our voice at a loud concert versus the library. We change our tone, questions asked, and facial expression when talking a friend who looks sad versus a friend who looks excited. Some of our learners aren’t able to pick up on these subtle changes in their environment. They need additional cues and prompts to show when specificities behaviors should and shouldn’t occur. 


Think about a recent problem behavior that a student had. Was there a clear cue that the behavior was not appropriate for the setting? What additional prompts could you add to the environment to show this?



Visuals also show the rules. The are implicit and explicit rules in the home, school, and community. We need to ensure that our students are presented these rules in a way that they understand. Many of our students struggle with receptive language processing. Relying only on verbal language to share rules is not sufficient. Some students many not have strong enough processing skills to understand those instructions. 

Visuals show the order of events.  

Since some of our students struggle with processing verbal language, we need to be aware of how we are sharing upcoming events and transitions. Surprises aren’t fun. We all like to know what is going to happen. Schedules are key! I use this example all the time – are you cool with sitting through a full day in-service with no agenda? Heck no. Neither are our kids. They need to know what is going to happen in their day – in a way they understand! Visuals help with this!


  1. Does anyone know where the red center label is from? I really want something similar.

  2. They are free in this post!

  3. Thanks, good info

  4. Can I get the link? I don’t see it 🙁

  5. I own that set, it’s not in there 🙁

  6. Also I mean the red table visual not flowcharts. (I own that and the table colors aren’t in there)
    There is also no longer a link. 🙁


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *