Let’s explore how visual strategies can be a game-changer in supporting our children with ADHD. These tools are not just about making things look organized; they’re key to helping our kids understand, manage, and excel in their daily tasks.
Visual aids like charts, lists, and schedules can significantly improve how children with ADHD organize their day, manage their time, and complete tasks. It’s about turning the abstract into something tangible and understandable.
Why Visuals Work
Visual aids are not just accessories in the toolkit for managing ADHD; they are powerful tools supporting comprehension and processing. Imagine this: in the world of ADHD, where text or verbal instructions can swirl into a blur, visuals stand out as clear, understandable beacons. They’re the ‘lifeboats’ in a sea of information, helping the ADHD brain navigate and grasp concepts that otherwise seem elusive. By converting abstract ideas into something you can see and touch, these aids don’t just store information; they transform it into a form that’s concrete, memorable, and far simpler to digest. This shift is pivotal. It cuts down the overwhelming tide of complex information, easing the mental effort and reducing cognitive overload.
And here’s where it gets really fascinating: visuals bolster every aspect of executive functioning by externalizing the information. It’s like taking the heavy load off the brain’s shoulders – no longer does it have to juggle everything within the confines of working memory or grapple with nebulous concepts like time. In a way, visual aids build an external structure, a sort of scaffolding that guides individuals with ADHD through the intricacies of daily life and learning tasks.
I often remind parents that children with ADHD need a prop or a person to support executive functions like working memory and self-monitoring. Typically, parents become this ‘default’ support, bearing the brunt of these executive tasks. Visuals, however, offer a remarkable opportunity for children to cultivate independence while giving parents a much-needed respite from holding it all together. Essentially, implementing visual aids is about transferring some of your child’s executive functioning from a person to a prop, empowering them and lightening your load simultaneously.
Core Principles of a Strong Visual System
When it comes to implementing visual aids for children with ADHD, it’s not just about introducing tools; it’s about crafting a system that resonates with your child. A strong visual system is like a custom-made suit—it fits perfectly and feels just right. Here’s how you can tailor this system to your child’s unique needs.
1. Developmentally and Academically Appropriate: Always keep in mind who you’re creating these visuals for. For a young child or one with a co-occurring learning disability, complex written lists might be overwhelming. Instead, a visual checklist with simple images can be much more effective. The key is to match the visual aid to their developmental stage and learning abilities.
2. Meeting Preferences: Take into account the age and personal tastes of your child. For instance, while younger children might enjoy and benefit from colorful cartoon images and larger fonts, teenagers might prefer something more understated. Many teens find simple, clean lists on a mini whiteboard, which they can check off and erase each day, to be more appealing and less infantilizing.
3. Collaboration with Your Child: This is about making your child a partner in the process. Whether it’s deciding between a list of images, detailed sentences with checkboxes, or just plain keywords, let your child have a say. This not only ensures the visual aid is something they’ll connect with but also fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility.
4. Provide Positive Feedback: Just as a plant thrives with sunlight and water, your child’s use of visual aids blossoms with encouragement. Celebrate their use of these tools, and provide positive reinforcement. This could be as simple as acknowledging when they successfully follow a visual schedule or complete tasks on a checklist.
5. Direct Your Child to the Tool: Children will typically take the easiest path to the information they seek. If asking a parent gives them the answer they are looking for, they don’t need to lean on the visual prop. When introducing a new visual, make sure you redirect any requests that could be answered by the visual to the visual.
6. Assess Effectiveness: Regular check-ins are crucial. Is the visual aid helping? Is it being used as intended? If something isn’t working, don’t hesitate to tweak it. Remember, flexibility is key in finding the perfect fit for your child’s changing needs.
7. Phase Out When Ready: Visual aids are not meant to be permanent fixtures. They’re stepping stones to greater independence. If you notice your child no longer needs a particular visual, or it has become a mere background item in the house, it might be time to simplify it or phase it out. Transition from a detailed checklist to a brief reminder list, or even consider if the aid can be retired altogether.
Remember, a strong visual system isn’t about inundating your home with aids; it’s about creating a supportive, adaptable environment that grows and evolves with your child.
My Favourite Visual Tools
Charts are excellent for tracking habits, behaviours, or routines. Use vibrant colours and clear labels to make them appealing. Focus on one behaviour, routine, or habit per chart to avoid complexity. Introduce charts one at a time to ensure they are effectively incorporated into daily routines.
A central family calendar is great for highlighting key events that impact everyone. For older teens, consider a transition to a shared digital calendar accessible on their devices. This shared approach fosters a sense of community and responsibility within the family.
Visual representation of weekly rhythms helps children anticipate regular activities, like sports days or possible play dates. For special days, a detailed visual schedule can help manage expectations. One of my favourite ways to make a schedule represent time and duration is to visually give items with longer durations more space on the page and shorter durations less space. See this photo of a simple schedule I made my children on a slow weekend day.
Lists provide clarity and structure, helping with organization and memory. They are a simple yet effective tool for breaking down tasks and expectations. The most important part of any list system is where that list is going to live and how and when it will be used. A second thing to consider is keeping lists to one category at a time such as separate lists for school assignments, personal goals, and things to pack for hockey practice.
Maps and Diagrams
Maps aid in spatial organization, useful for planning room layouts or school projects. Diagrams simplify complex ideas, making abstract concepts more tangible and understandable. I recommend using these tools the most to support learning such as a diagram to compare and contrast concepts or a map to visualize the environment being discussed in a social studies lesson.
Using open bins or baskets for daily essentials can make an organizational system easy to use for a child with ADHD.
Children may struggle with remembering where they have left things and where things go. By keeping systems visual and open we allow organization, but don’t lose things behind closed doors. Open organization can even become a visual routine helper. Try keeping morning routine items like toiletries in one bin and have your child move each item to a second bin once used, providing a clear visual of completed tasks.
Clocks and Timers
Clocks, countdowns, and visual timers make time a tangible concept. They are especially beneficial for children with ADHD who struggle with time perception. These tools are key in teaching and reinforcing time management skills. In my practice, I have often found that once children are taught how to use a visual timer they will start to seek it out to use independently. Look for my favourite recommendation below.
Most visuals are simple and easy to make at home. I use Canva to make printable visuals, mini whiteboards for temporary lists, and my 10-year-old actually loves a simple checklist on a cuecard that she can complete in one day more than anything else I have bought or made. It does not have to be complicated.
Some items like my favourite visual timer though, I do recommend purchasing. The amazon links below are affiliate links, but the etsy shops are not commissionable. I reached out to both sellers for permission to share their stores and one offered a discount for us (I did not receive compensation for sharing, I just liked their products).
If you are going to buy one support tool for ADHD I recommend the Time Timer, I don’t think anyone could love a timer as much as I love this one. I use it in my own home, my kids use it, and MANY of my clients love it too. I recommend positively introducing this tool, so counting down to something good instead of monitoring the end of something they love to keep the introduction positive (just for the first few introductions).
Magnetic Dry Erase Calendar
I haven’t tried these specific options, but this is the style I recommend for family calendars. A monthly and weekly view to share key items and the ability to colour code.
Routine charts are easy to make, but sometimes getting crafty is just one more thing. I love these styles of charts because a child can indicate when they have done each step, but the chart is able to be reset and reused daily.
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For older kids and teens I love the simplicity of a mini whiteboard for checklists, to do lists, homework breakdowns, and more. I recommend them in the bedroom or the kitchen. Here are a couple that look good:
Supporting ADHD at School
This e-Book is an Introduction to ADHD at School.
We will build understanding of the 3 core areas of impact: Executive Functioning, Motivation, and Overwhelm, followed by targeted strategies to support each area.
I have included my favourite, tried and true, tested by the 100s of families that I have worked with strategies to request on learning plans and IEPS.
There is a step by step break down of how to work with your child’s teacher to set up a plan for your child to take movement breaks.
You will also learn the basics of escalation planning if your child struggles with either external (meltdowns) or internal (anxiety and panic attacks) escalations.
You can learn more here: