Episode 56:

Symbols of Inclusion (Part 2)—Swimming

Date released: October 2014


Partners: Swimming Australia

In part 2 of this mini-series we take a closer look at why symbols are an effective tool to aid communication and understanding, including a case study of how to use symbols for a swimming lesson. Includes 16 free swimming ‘ready to print’ symbols.

In Part 1 of Symbols of Inclusion we looked at the use of visual cues to assist understanding and communication. We considered how symbols can be used in a variety of contexts, either as stand alone visual aids or as a series to depict a schedule or timetable of activities. They may also be used as a storyline to help people with communication and learning difficulties understand the sequence of actions and events in any particular circumstance.

When we teach or coach learners with communication difficulties, or who communicate in different ways, how do we know how much of our instructions are actually being processed? Have you ever tried learning a new skill in another country where the language is foreign to you? If you don’t understand the language and therefore can’t make any sense of the words, visual supports like symbols can assist greatly with understanding and supporting our language comprehension, just as we rely on photos of food in menus and signs at airports of foreign countries when we travel.

The Inclusion Club—Episode56 Cover

Visual supports like symbols also give time for information to be processed. Traditionally in teaching and coaching our preferred teaching modality has been providing verbal instructions. The problem with verbal instructions alone is that when an instruction is given, there is only a short period of time for that instruction to be processed. In essence, the instruction is gone as soon as it has been spoken. The instruction needs to be processed as it is spoken, or committed to memory first before processing can take place, which means a delay in processing time and therefore a delay in the learner responding to the instruction.

The other problem with verbal instructions is that one instruction is often followed by another instruction and then another in rapid succession. So how much of any given instruction has actually been processed and understood? Symbols on the other hand can be displayed for a longer period of time. When the verbal instruction has been given, the visual can remain. It doesn’t need to disappear, and in fact could be displayed for the entire lesson if needed, giving time for information processing to occur.

If we are not sure of the ability of our learners to process information or comprehend language, pairing verbal instructions with visual supports and / or a demonstration of the skill would provide the learner with more information about the skill and more time to process the instruction that was provided. Ultimately this could mean the difference between success and failure.

A swimming lesson

We will look at how this may look in a swimming lesson for young people with disabilities learning to swim. Our sequence may involve the following skills:

The visual supports could be displayed as each activity is introduced or could be on display in the pool area for the duration of the lesson for the teacher or coach to refer to as the skills are being taught. For some learners, including swimmers who feel anxious about the lesson, it may be important for the symbols to be displayed for the entire time as it helps them to predict what the lesson may involve and what is next. This may also have a positive impact on their behaviour.

The symbols displayed here are royalty free symbols that we had developed for The Inclusion Club and can be used without fear of copyright issues. As an alternative you may choose to use photos, line drawings, clip-art or symbol systems like Mayer-Johnson symbols (Boardmaker symbols). How these are displayed is up to you. They could be a horizontal or vertical array, or the symbols could be displayed on a key-ring or lanyard as demonstrated below. Some learners may have a preference if they have used symbol arrays before. It is always useful to introduce a symbols for ‘surprise’, in case you have an activity that you don’t have a symbol for. This also helps the learner develop flexibility.

See the examples below:

Using symbols in a social script

These same symbols can also be used to create a social script or story that can be used prior to the lesson. Such social scripts help some learners predict what may happen during the swimming session and so reduce anxiety that comes with not knowing what is going to happen or what to expect.

Below is an example of a social script:

My Swimming Lesson

On Saturday morning I go to the pool for a swimming lesson. It’s lots of fun. I get into my swimmers before I leave home, and when I get to the pool I wait on the seat for my instructor. When I see him I say hello. When we get into the pool my instructor tells me what activities I will be doing. The activities may be floating on my back or front, blowing bubbles under water, kicking my legs, and practising my arm actions. I learn fun new skills all the time. I have to remember to listen to the instructions. There are other children in my lesson. We take turns. I need to remember to wait for my turn. When the lesson is over I get out of the pool straight away so other children can start their lesson. When I listen to my instructor, follow instructions and take turns, swimming lessons are lots of fun.

Depending on the needs of the individual and their level of anxiety around swimming, a social script like this could be read during the week leading up to the lesson, or the day before the lesson or an hour before the lesson. Most social scripts need to be read many times over a period of time to maximise their effectiveness. A social story like this could be laminated and put in the learner’s swimming bag, or could be put on an iPad. There are many apps that are used for social scripts such as Pictello, Stepping Stones or Story Creator.

There are many other ways to use these symbols as visual supports. If swimming is not a favourite activity for the learner, a ‘First—Then card using symbols may be useful as a motivator to engage in the lesson. The idea is simple but can be very effective. If the learner participates in their swimming lesson, then they can have something that they really like as a reward or reinforcer at the end of the lesson. Sometimes the learner can be given a choice of reinforcers or rewards through the use of a choice board. For some learners, as their anxiety reduces and they learn to enjoy the lessons over time, the reinforcer may not need to be used as frequently as the lessons themselves become reinforcing. However for other learners who find swimming really difficult, the reinforcer is incredibly important and may always be required.

Example of a Choices Card

Example of a Choices Card

So you can see that symbols can be really useful in teaching and coaching. They can be used to help structure the lesson, increase the learner’s understanding, assist the learner predict what will happen, clarify expectations and thereby increase the learner’s level of independent participation during the lesson. Other outcomes may include reducing the learner’s fear and anxiety around participation in the lesson, and therefore reducing challenging behaviours. These are all really good reasons for taking the time to incorporate visual supports in your teaching or coaching. Once you try them you will never look back. And, by the way, don’t forget to have fun!

Now you can download your free 16 A4 full colour 300 dpi swimming symbols and put them to good use.

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About the author: Peter Downs

About the author: Peter Downs

Founding Director - The Inclusion Club

Peter is Founding Director of The Inclusion Club and Manager of Play by the Rules – a national initiative to promote safe, fair and inclusive sport. Peter has worked for over 25 years in the field of inclusive sport, disability sport and physical activity including 17 years managing the Australian Sports Commission’s Disability Sport Unit.  In 2013 Peter was fortunate enough to receive a Churchill Fellowship to study models of best practice in inclusive sport and physical activity.