Teaching Children Independence and Advocacy Skills from an Early Age

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Elisa Darrow

When a parent learns their child is blind or has low vision as early as birth, it can take time to accept. But it’s essential that children start learning key skills as early as possible. Giving children the tools they need to lead independent, fulfilling lives will give both children and their parents optimism about the future.

The importance of early intervention can’t be overstated. Parents or guardians are central to helping children begin learning to understand and navigate the world immediately after a diagnosis.

“Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers that have vision learn incidentally, just by seeing the world around them, so we try to lay the foundation to help children who are blind or visually impaired learn the life skills they need to be independent,” says Elise Darrow, a Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI) and a Certified Orientation & Mobility Specialist (COMS) at the Anchor Center for Blind Children in Denver.

She estimates that only about ten such centers dedicated to very young children exist in the United States. But much of what the Anchor Center teaches can be taught by parents at home and, later, in conjunction with their child’s TVI or COMS.

Helping children understand the world around them

The Anchor Center provides a variety of early education and intervention services for children from birth to five years old who are blind or low vision. As Elise explains, the center’s mission is to equip families with the knowledge of their child’s overall development and prepare children to be as independent as possible in kindergarten and beyond.

Because children who are blind or low vision can’t rely on visual cues, it’s essential that parents, other family members, and caregivers provide verbal cues from the start.

“Explain every single process that’s happening in their daily routine, so if it’s bath time, tell them that so they’ll know to anticipate running water, taking a bath, getting dressed, and going to bed,” Elise explains. “If a parent just picks up a baby without them learning what to expect, they could be in a constant state of alertness because they don’t know what to anticipate next.”

It’s also extremely important for parents to demonstrate to their children what to do in situations such as sitting at the table for a meal. Handing everything to them – what Elise refers to as the “fairy godmother syndrome” – makes children think that people will always give them things they need, which isn’t how the world works. Instead, teach your children that when it’s time to eat, their cup and spoon will be on their right, and it’s up to them to reach for them.

Encouraging active learning

Although young children need to be taught, there comes a time when parents need to step back and let their children become more engaged in their own learning.

Consider what happens when a child drops something – a common occurrence. Rather than picking it up for them, guide your baby or toddler down toward the floor and encourage them to look with their hands to find what they dropped.

“We need parents to teach their children to be active participants in daily life,” Elise says. “They have to become independent learners because once they leave Anchor Center or go to public school, they might not always have an adult with them to show them how to open their backpack.”

Elise emphasizes that some of the best opportunities for learning happen naturally. Using a dropped object as an example again, it teaches children about cause and effect. They’ll be better set up for success if they learn right then and there, she says.

Teaching independence through exploration

It’s equally important for parents to both narrate activities for their children and let them explore the world on their own terms.

“Maybe sit your child down and find out what’s motivating to them, so you can learn their interests,” Elise says. “Stay quiet and if they move around and touch something with an arm or a leg, that will motivate them to wonder, ‘What did I just touch? I want to move toward that.’”

Tapping into what motivates babies and toddlers keeps them engaged in learning rather than passively waiting for everything to be explained or handed to them.

“We want children to be independent in wanting to reach out and interact with something,” she says. “Learning to explore and process things builds a foundation for impendence and advocates for learning through different avenues in life.”

To find if there’s a center near you that provides hands-on early intervention services similar to Anchor Center’s, contact APH Connect Center’s Information and Referral Line at 1-800-232-5463 (M-F, 8am-8pm ET) or any time at connectcenter@aph.org, or utilize our searchable Directory of Services.

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