Last reviewed 27 September 2013

Communication fans are used to help children communicate their needs or feelings to adults or their peers, or for others to communicate with the child pictorially. Liz Hodgman reports.

Why use communication fans?

Communication fans are often used when working with children with special needs who have communication difficulties or children for whom English is a second or additional language. They are also ideal to use with children who are pre-verbal, have limited vocabulary or communication difficulties.

  • They can be made to suit the individual needs of the child.

  • They are very portable.

  • They are very cheap and easy to make.

  • They can be used anywhere and taken home.

  • They can easily be changed, with images added or removed according to need.

  • They support children who are unable to verbalise their needs or emotions.

  • They support children who have English as a second or additional language.

  • They support children who need longer to take in an instruction — the image provides them with time to process the words once they have been said.

  • They can be used for a number of purposes: personalised visual timetables, requests, behaviour management, to express feelings, etc.

How to use the fans

The fans can be used for a number of different communication purposes and this will depend on each child, and his or her needs and abilities.

Physical needs

If a child is unable to communicate his or her physical needs to an adult, the fan will make an excellent tool. For example, a child will be able to find the picture of the toilet and point to it in front of their keyworker and then know that they will be supported to go to the toilet. This fan could include needing a drink, feeling hungry or tired, needing to go outside or inside, feeling too hot or cold, etc. The fan can also be used to ask the child whether he or she needs to go to the toilet, if he or she is thirsty, etc.

Sharing emotions

The fan could have different “smiley face” images across a range of emotions (these are readily available on the internet) or photographs of the child his or herself, expressing different emotions using his or her face. The child can then use the fan to show his or her keyworker how he or she is feeling, or respond to “how are you feeling?”. This may help to avoid frustration or misreading of a child’s body language.

Managing behaviour

A fan can be used to manage a child’s behaviour, with pictures for the child to show you of areas that normally cause frustration and may trigger the unwanted behaviour. For example, “I don’t understand, please tell me again”, or “I can’t do it, I need help” . A fan could also be used when a member of staff or the child’s keyworker wants to tell the child that his or her behaviour is not acceptable. You can use a very simple traffic light system with red for “stop immediately your behaviour is not acceptable”, amber for “your behaviour is not what we expect, you need to change your behaviour” and green for “your behaviour is good”. Expressive faces can also be used to accompany the traffic lights, or thumbs up, down or sideways, to signify the level of behaviour.

Personal visual timetable

Fans can also be a format for making a personalised visual timetable for a child. This would be particularly helpful if the child is moving around the provision a lot, as he or she would not need to keep returning to the timetable on the wall.

How to make communication fans

Communication fans can be purchased from early years and SEN suppliers. They are normally made from a laminated type of card and some have blanks so you can add your own symbols. There are a large number of free downloadable fans available on the internet. You can print them, cut them out and then laminate. Cut them out again leaving a small amount of clear laminate to prevent the seal being broken. Hole-punch the fan pieces at the narrow end and then secure together with a treasury tag or similar. It is best to avoid the metal fasteners as these may be sharp for small children to use.

However, you can also develop your own communication fans. These can then be very personal to the individual child’s needs and interests. You may even consider making different fans for one child to use depending on the purpose; for example a child may have a fan with their physical needs on, so the child can tell an adult when he or she needs to go to the toilet, is hungry, tired, etc. The child may then have another fan that enables him or her to share the emotions they are feeling — happy, sad, angry, scared, etc.

The images on the fan can be photographs, images downloaded from the internet or “smiley faces” for the emotions. You can also add words underneath the images as this will help support the child’s literacy development.

There are now a large range of “fans” available to purchase that are learning tools to aid the development of phonics, connectives, punctuation, shape, numbers, decimals and time.

It is important to regularly review the fans for each child to ensure that they include the appropriate images and words for their needs. Remove any petals of the fan that are no longer required and add new ones as the child’s abilities and interests develop and change. Ensure that all staff within your provision are aware of which children are using communication fans and the support levels they require. This will help with consistency for the child and avoid any frustration for them.

Children may like to be involved in making or decorating their fans. Making them personal may help to engage the child in using them more.

Involve parents

It is important to share the fan with the child’s parents and explain why you are using them and how they work. Parents may like to use the fans at home and you may be able to share the fans or help them to make copies for home. They may need different pictures for home fans than those needed within the provision. You will also need to review with them regularly as the child develops and his or her needs change.

Language development

It is important when using the fan to also model the language that accompanies the image. This will help the child to increase their vocabulary and develop their speech and language. They should not be used in silence unless the situation dictates.