At the start of this school year, I’m reminded there is a pretty steep learning curve when it comes to understanding visual impairments. Everything that we know about children and how they learn is turned on its head when you apply those same principles to students without 20/20 vision. With that in mind, there are a few quick tips I’d like to throw out there for classroom teachers first experiencing a student with a visual impairment.
1) Forget about incidental learning. A statistic I have quoted many times is that 80-90% of what a typical child learns is visual and is often through incidental learning. They see an older sibling eating with utensils and they think, “Hey! I’m supposed to use a fork.” Children without visual clues won’t automatically pick that up without being told that everyone eats with utensils, without being shown what utensils are, and without being walked through the process step-by-step. In summary, if you want to teach a student with a visual impairment something, let them get their hands on it. Give them extra time to explore tactually and have first-hand experiences most children only need to view.
2) “HAND-UNDER-HAND.” Our first instinct with children who are blind is to grab their hands and manipulate them through an activity we want them to do. Having your hands moved for you is a very invasive tactic, especially for young or multiply impaired students (like my son) that may not understand what you are doing. A very wise friend of mine demonstrated how this feels by doing a lesson with teachers entirely in French, while they were blindfolded, and grabbed their hands to have them complete tasks. Take a moment to imagine that and I’m sure a panic attack will set-in.
“Hand-under-hand” is a more polite way to introduce new things. Allow the students to place their hands on yours while you show them how to do something or explore. It’s amazing how fast those little hands will begin to reach out on their own and how quickly they will trust you to teach them new things.
3) Make sure there is braille everywhere. In a classroom with students that are sighted, there are posters, words, and books surrounding them. They see language everywhere. Children with visual impairments don’t benefit from these everyday sights. They need to come in contact with braille (large print for some) as much as possible.
If a teacher places braille labels throughout their room, provides access to braille books, and makes sure materials are in braille, the students will begin to realize that there are words everywhere and that reading might be a great skill to have. Braille literacy statistics are frightening and we all know if you can’t read, it will be nearly impossible to find a job. As a teacher, you should hope for all your students to become literate and early experiences are the key.
4) Treat them like all the other kids. Students with visual impairments can be intimidating to a teacher with minimal experience in this arena. However, I like to emphasize that they are simply kids, too. My son has his quirks (obviously), but he is just a kid. If he’s not paying attention, call him on it. If he’s throwing a tantrum, tell him “That’s enough.” If he does something well or is participating with his peers make sure to say, “Eddie, great job!”
If you want him to feel like part of your class, make sure you treat him like he is in the room. It requires a little more effort because you can’t just smile at him or make eye contact. However, the more you use his name or pat him on the back, the other kids will realize he’s just like them and that he is one of their peers and not an outcast to be ignored. Some teachers pick this up fast but others may need reminders and polite suggestions.
5) Mainstreaming is important. This is a concept that many teachers are now open to even though that wasn’t always the case. However, they may not understand its importance or meaning. Mainstreaming doesn’t mean you just allow a child who is blind to sit in your room while you lecture. Just like any other child, you wouldn’t expect them to simply “soak up” the knowledge. Often these kids are the quietest and most polite, but that doesn’t mean they are learning.
Eddie is an expert at doing nothing. Often, when a child who is blind is sitting quietly in your classroom while you speak, they are simply doing nothing. They are not being bothered and they are lovin’ it. Having them in your room requires work and that phrase some teachers dread, differential learning. You will have to adapt assignments and provide more hands-on activities and allow them to use their “loud” Brailler in your room, but that is just how they learn.
Providing them equal learning opportunities isn’t the only thing accomplished by mainstreaming. Remember when I mentioned how much is learned visually; this includes social experiences. Students with visual impairments need to be with their peers to learn about friendships, to learn about appropriate social behavior, and maybe even to learn how to raise their hand. Eddie lives in a world that revolves around him, and patience is a virtue he doesn’t have because people love to cater to his every need. When he is in a classroom with twenty other students, the world suddenly doesn’t move on his command and that is an extremely important thing to learn.
I realize this blog is more like an article and much longer than normal, but these are things I find SO important and universal no matter who the kid is and what their academic level might be. I invite any of you that may read this to comment and add more “tips for teachers.” Our children are such a small and special group of kids that we need to share advice as much as possible to set the bar high and continue to raise our expectations for them and for their teachers.