SymbolStix Teaches Students With Disabilities About Bullying Education

October 19, 2014
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

Today’s featured resource in honor of National Bullying Prevention Month is SymbolStix from n2y, a family-run business out of Ohio since 1997 dedicated to creating symbol-supported tools, special education curriculum, lesson plans, and related materials.

I had the great pleasure to interview n2y’s Director of Symbols, Anne Johnson-Oliss, about the value of using visual communication tools to teach those with disabilities about bullying-related issues and to learn about fantastic resources they’re making available to you on their website.

Why is it so important to use visual tools and symbolic representations like SymbolStix when teaching students with cognitive disabilities about bullying?

Anne didn’t hesitate a second. “Because they work!” was her enthusiastic response.

Anne went on to emphasize how most of us are visual learners and that we only remember 20% of what we hear. Add in the element of an intellectual disability, and the need for something static becomes even more vital. 

When taught in context, words paired with symbols help people learn. The goal is to support communication and mutual understanding. In The Importance of Symbols, n2y says that symbols can “help children get their message across successfully and more efficiently if speech is not available for that student for physical or emotional reasons.” Using symbols promotes self-advocacy and encourages problem solving.

What are the most important lessons or concepts we need to teach individuals with disabilities about bullying?

Bullying is abuse, affirms Anne, and those with disabilities learn the characteristics of abuse, related vocabulary, how it makes you feel, and actions to take in response.

What would those who are being bullied need to be able to communicate effectively to others—whether it’s to their peers, family members, caregivers, or staff members?

Anne’s answers focused on messages students can make, such as “I’m uncomfortable,” “Something hurts,” and on action requests such as “Stay with me” and “Help me.”

Symbolic representations and what they convey about bullying

Some of n2y’s symbols focus on related emotions that could be experienced. Others are about prohibited behaviors. Regardless, use of these types of tools are never a “one-and-done” sort of learning process. Initially all require context and discussion as their use is being learned.

There are corresponding lessons and activities, often designed for specific reasons. Check out the BINGO-type game and Okay/Not Okay activity using SymbolStix that n2y has made especially available to all of you reading this post!

How do visuals change as a child grows?

Bullying education through the use of visuals naturally changes as a child grows and moves on from an elementary setting to middle school, high school, and beyond into the transition to adulthood. 

As children grow, so do their social circles, so their symbols system becomes more of a matrix, with far more complex scenarios. While for younger ages, the subject matter is kept more limited with simple verbiage and the teaching of positive pro-social behaviors, later on subtlety needs to be taught, access to technology needs to be taken into account, and lessons related to predation need to be included.


I love the last sentence in The Importance of Symbols that reads “Used in conjunction with real-life situations, symbols are a fabric that ties everyone together, giving the student, caregivers, instructors, and family members a common language.”

Real-life scenarios and a common language are so often the keys to promoting better understanding for everyone.

If you haven’t yet, read our blog “What to Say to a Bully,” where experts share thoughts, strategies, and interviews about making our schools safer.

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