The Expanded Core Curriculum for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired: Start Earlier, Do More

By Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald with Sean Tikkun, guest blogger

The Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) has a very specific purpose. It was created as a strategic method to address the needs of students with visual impairments, ensuring that they receive the necessary specialized instruction and skills to benefit from their general education.

To achieve this large task, the ECC has nine components:

  1. Compensatory or functional academic skills,
  2. Orientation and mobility,
  3. Social interaction skills,
  4. Independent living skills,
  5. Recreation and leisure skills,
  6. Career education,
  7. Use of assistive technology,
  8. Sensory efficiency skills, and
  9. Self-determination.

As sighted peers can receive many of these skills through visual examples and incidental learning, our students with visual impairments require some additional instruction to fill in the gaps. Naturally, the extent to which a student will utilize the ECC will vary with the student; some may need very minimal additional instruction, while others may utilize instruction in all nine sections. The ECC is here to be molded and modified to fit the needs of each individual student.

Uphill Battles: Size and Time

For students and their parents, teachers of students with visual impairments, Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams, and school administrations, the ECC can often feel insurmountable. The size of the curriculum and the time we have to effectively provide its components can raise concerns.

To gain some insight into the health of the ECC and the way we can improve our practice, I spoke to Sean Tikkun, a doctoral student at Northern Illinois University. His research is in educational psychology focusing on visual impairments and has master’s degrees in special education-visual impairments and educational media design. He is one of the three Apple Distinguished Educators, students for teaching students with visual impairments in the world, and a founding member and designer of the UEBot project. He has his hand on the pulse of educational procedures, methods, and potential improvements for students with visual impairments. He believes in the ECC, but he believes there are better ways to handle the size and time restrictions associated with it. How? Let’s break it down.

Confronting Size: Taking One Skill at a Time

“The ECC is too big; not that it’s unnecessarily too big, it does cover all the areas really well and Dr. Phil Hatlen nailed it,” Sean said. “The addition of the component of self-determination by Karen Blankenship is a very important one, but as a whole, the ECC is just so big. How do we do it? How do we address that need? Is that all the job of the teacher of students with visual impairments?”

In order to balance the workload of the teacher of students with visual impairments, we can look at the nine components as puzzle pieces that can (and should) be moved, shifted, and rearranged until they create a good fit for the individual student and the teacher. Some puzzles will require fewer pieces to complete, while others require more. All puzzles will look uniquely different, so it’s crucial that we carefully evaluate and strategize for the most effective lesson plan.

It’s important to recognize that while the teacher of students with visual impairments is in charge of evaluating the student, organizing his individual curriculum, orchestrating a collaboration of skills training, and monitoring his progress could never be the sole responsibility of the teacher. Help from other professionals on the IEP team is essential. Help from parents with skills developed in the home is essential too.

One could make the argument that the component of sensory efficiency is already a big part of compensatory skills. Some of the components may even be combined and fused to lessen the load a bit on the front end. For example, a lot of compensatory skills will be geared to address the student’s lack of vision, as will those skills associated with sensory efficiency. Our first solution will be teaching our student to read, write, and attain resources in braille. This one solution addresses two elements of the ECC, so we are essentially catching two ECC birds—compensatory access and sensory efficiency—with the same stone.

“Take the element of daily living skills, too,” Sean mentioned. “If we have someone who is congenitally blind, we’re starting to teach those at birth and encouraging them to have chores within the house and making meals with their family, things of that nature.”

These are some of the ways that teachers of students with visual impairments can get creative in mixing, matching, and adjusting the nine components to take one skill at a time, recognizing how it will benefit each individual student, and then applying it to their curriculum as needed.

Confronting Time: Start Earlier

“The answer I give to the question, ‘how do we address all those needs in that amount of time,’ is that we need to start everything earlier, and we need do more,” Sean said.

In Sean’s opinion, there is no such thing as "too soon" for teaching the components of the ECC to our students. The earlier we’re able to meet our students where they are, understand where gaps need to be filled, and how to fill them, the more effective we can be at every step: early intervention, elementary school, secondary school teaching, and beyond. In order to start earlier, we need more manpower, better collaboration, and improved access to technology.

“A lot of the stuff that we wait for junior high school for, around independence and other instruction, can get underway earlier.” This idea that most parts of the ECC can be integrated into early intervention skills training is a valid conviction of ECC enthusiasts. Instead of waiting until kindergarten to start with assistive technology, children can be introduced to programs and devices from 3 or 4 years old. Instead of waiting to teach self-determination skills to seniors in high school as they apply for their first job, we should be building their personal skills as soon as possible, starting in elementary school.

“How can we leverage existing technology or take advantage at emerging technology to try and get closer to that ideal in terms of the amount of instruction contact hours, drive time, support, how do we get there," Sean asked. “It really comes down to the framework of how we deliver services and how we communicate and delegate with one another.”

To implement this change, we would also need more skilled professionals in the field. Imagine, if we had an extra four more years and twice the amount of certified vision professionals providing services to our schools? Could we design instruction in such a manner that our students would be better prepared for high school and college? Could we make sure our students with visual impairments started getting the ECC skills they need by eighth grade so that they’re ahead or more ready for high school? Sean Tikkun seems to think so.

ECC Advice and Resources

Phil Hatlen’s Advice on the Expanded Core Curriculum

Bringing the Expanded Core Curriculum Into Your Holidays with Your Blind or Visually Impaired Child

Know Your Rights As the Parent of a Blind or Visually Impaired Child