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An image vocabulary for children about feelings, rights and safety, personal care and sexuality

  Why the Images Were Developed

How the Images Were Developed

How to Find the Images

How Should the Images Be Used?

How Should the Images Be Introduced to Children?

How It Is Resources

Your Feedback and Comments


How it is is an image vocabulary that has been developed to help children communicate about a range of important issues. It has been developed by Triangle and funded and supported by the NSPCC. The project was led by Ruth Marchant and Merry Cross of Triangle.

More than 100 children and young people contributed by drawing or commenting on images. The project was also supported by a multi-disciplinary group of professionals and parents.

How it is has been designed to be used as a flexible, child-centred resource. The following guidance notes introduce some key principles and ideas and will help you find your way around the image sections. They have been taken from the How it is booklet written by Ruth Marchant and Merry Cross, which you can download by clicking here. Please note that you will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to download the booklet. Click here to install Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Why the Images were developed

There are widely recognised gaps in existing symbol vocabularies. These gaps both reflect the social position of disabled children and contribute to their increased vulnerability to abuse. In Triangle we have worked with many children who have a wide symbol vocabulary but are missing some of the basics that we feel are essential, for example:

  • Children who have more than 20 symbols for body parts but no symbol for bottom (or any other private body part).

  • Children who can communicate about the national curriculum but cannot say 'leave me alone'.

  • Children who have 15 different colours in their communication system but can't ask for a cuddle.

The vocabulary gap also means that adults working with disabled children face additional and unnecessary difficulties in respect of child protection. We know of experienced child protection investigators who resort to freehand drawing of new symbols for children when investigating concerns about possible abuse, which creates serious questions about the safety of the evidence.

These new images are designed:

  • to support children to communicate about their feelings, their bodies, their rights and their basic needs

  • to assist adults to work with children on these issues

  • to enable children, when necessary, to communicate about abuse in evidentially safer ways

  • to enable adults, when necessary, to investigate concerns about children's safety in more evidentially valid ways.


How the Images were developed

Children and young people from 20 months to 20 years were involved in a six-month project, working alongside a multi-disciplinary group of professionals and parents.

We put the vocabulary list together by looking at gaps in existing symbol systems, and drawing ideas from children's books, children's language, research literature and the knowledge of experienced practitioners. Twenty-four young children worked with their parents to build the vocabulary list and develop the images for some of the more sensitive areas.

An experienced symbol designer and members of the Triangle team then worked alongside children in various settings. This included disabled and non-disabled children and young people across a wide age range and from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Some children were involved in the design stage, helping to think about images, and producing or commenting on initial drawings. Other children were involved in testing the images, they were asked to guess what different images might mean, and asked to draw or make suggestions for ways to represent the more challenging ideas.


Who is this vocabulary for?

The images were designed primarily for children already using Augmentative and Alternative Communication Systems (AAC). We hope they may also be useful for other children.

Children with speech and hearing learn most of this vocabulary by the age of about seven (from their peers as well as from adults), though much of it is learnt earlier. For very young children, some of the personal care images (nappy, potty, wee, poo) or some of the feelings (hot, cold, cross, happy) may be most relevant.

The images allow children to be negative ('I hate you'), to assert themselves ('its not fair', 'its my turn') and to describe a range of touches (tickle, rub, squeeze, hug) including painful things that may have happened to them (hit, smack, kick). Much of this vocabulary has been previously unavailable to children using AAC.


How to find images

There are 383 images available in the set. They are divided into five sections:

  • Feelings

  • Rights and safety

  • General vocabulary

  • Personal care

  • Sexuality

There are two ways of searching for a particular image:

Firstly, by selecting 'Subject Browse' in the navigation bar on the left-hand side of the screen, you can select images categorised into the five sections and, within these, into pages. There are usually 6 images per page.

Simply click on the Descriptive Phrase that you think might be useful. The images available on that page, each with their own description underneath, will be shown.

If you wish to use one of these images in your work, click on the image you are interested in. A text-free version of the image will be opened in a separate box, which you are free to save or print (bearing in mind the copyright issue).

Once you have finished, close the image box and select 'BACK' to return to the Subject Browse screen

Alternatively, you can use the 'Image Search' link in the navigation bar. You can enter a word in the Search box. This could be an 'adult' word (eg: penis), or a children's (eg: willy).

If you are working with a child already using Rebus symbols, click on the 'Rebus Symbols Only' box to search only for those images.

Some of the more explicit images are protected within this structure; additional guidance is automatically offered when these images are accessed.

You will notice that some words have several images. This is because different images may be more or less meaningful for a particular child. You might like to offer different images to the child and see which they choose, or you may already have a clear idea which would suit them best. There are no absolute right or wrong meanings for any image.

Equally, you will see that some images have several words or phrases. This is to make it easier to find what you are looking for, and also to encourage you to use words familiar to each child, especially when first introducing the images.


How should the images be used?

For children already using AAC, these images can be included in their existing systems, adapted if necessary. They need to be taught and introduced in the same way as other new symbols or images.

For children not using AAC, we hope these images may be of value in:

  • supporting the PSHE curriculum

  • teaching about emotional literacy, rights and safety

  • involving children in assessments, reviews and planning

  • Involving children in research processes

  • ascertaining and representing children's wishes and feelings

  • investigating concerns about children's welfare and safety

  • working therapeutically with children in a range of contexts.


How should the images be introduced to children?

If you are introducing new vocabulary to a child, it is essential that you know them well and are aware of the vocabulary they have already mastered as well as what they appear to understand but have no vocabulary for yet. Remember we all learn to recognise and understand vocabulary before we can use it ourselves, so it is quite likely that there is vocabulary in this set which your child is ready for.

Begin with teaching the simplest, most concrete ideas, not least to give the child encouragement. Make sure you give the child a chance to use the words in their own sentences before adding any more. It is vital they can USE the vocabulary, not just recognize it.

Children may need to be introduced to vocabulary in a context (that is within a few sentences or even a short story, or with physical examples) in order for them to grasp the context. Words like 'sting' and 'fluffy' might be examples. Also, some of the vocabulary really represents quite complex ideas. Phrases like 'It's not fair' seem so common-place in the non-disabled world, that we can forget that there is much that needs to be understood in order to use them accurately.

If you are unsure about using any part of this vocabulary, we would encourage you to consult others: parents, speech and language therapists, teachers, whoever you trust most about communication.

Encouragement has been given to symbol producers to adapt these images to fit with their style. Rebus symbols for all these images have been developed in parallel and are included in the set. We are equally happy for anyone else to adapt them to suit a particular child's needs. For example, you might colour images in, or alter their size, or redraw them or combine different elements to make new images.

Please be aware that:

  • Children generally understand more than they can express.

  • Children's ability to use a drawing as representative of themselves or others matures in line with other representation-of-self skills - i.e. usually emerges at around 3.5 to 4 years.

  • Children often learn vocabulary through a process of play, in which they may be more interested for a while in the sound of the word, or things it rhymes with, or the fact that it is considered rude. Disabled children need this opportunity too, and should not be discouraged from learning in this way. We may need to remind ourselves that they do not have the advantage of 'naughty', giggly conversations, or practising 'rude' rhymes, out of the sight and hearing of adults.

  • Non-disabled children make many mistakes with newly acquired words before being able to use them accurately. We tend to overlook this in the constant stream of their conversations, whereas mistakes are more obvious when a child must make a great effort and take a long time to produce a short sentence.

  • In relation to the vocabulary about body parts and sexuality, it is particularly demanding of our wisdom to work out the boundary between appropriate experimentation and behaviour that should concern us. It is necessary to balance our sensitivities about sexual knowledge with the child's needs to have self-awareness and to be safe.

  • Families differ across religious and cultural boundaries about what vocabulary is acceptable for children. The child's age, your gender and theirs, and other factors may also need to be taken into account.

  • If you are not the child's parent, then there may be much you need to do before embarking on teaching some of the more sensitive vocabulary, and possibly some of the assertive vocabulary. This process may require you to talk to the child's parents or to community leaders.

  • Within religions and cultures, families vary enormously as to how rigidly they interpret or adhere to norms. Some may require strict adherence by other family members, but be willing to make allowances for a disabled child. Others may be generally more liberal or flexible about how they put their beliefs into practice.

Dialogue is vital, but our starting point is that every child has the right to learn to communicate about these ideas, not least to assist in keeping them safe.


How It Is Resources

The 'How it is' images and guidance notes also available in booklet and CD-ROM format at the following price:

Booklet and CD-ROM  -   8.00
CD-ROM alone  -   Free of charge, subject to availability

Copies can be obtained from the Triangle website, click here to visit the publications page.


Your feedback and comments

We do not imagine that this is the final set of images. We would welcome your comments, suggestions and ideas.

Ruth Marchant and Merry Cross for Triangle April 2002

7 Hunns Mere Way
West Sussex
Tel: 01273 305888

If you have feedback about further development of the images, please contact us using the above address or through the website