Once your child has been tested and diagnosed as blind or partially sighted, your lifelong journey towards enriching his/her knowledge base, meeting the professionals and organisations that can help, and taking helpful administrative steps (like obtaining a Certificate of Visual Impairment and/or a Statement of Special Educational Needs), begins. Along the way, specific people (like your child’s Special Education Needs Co-ordinator) will be vital pillars you will lean on for support, advice and information. Despite their great value in helping you and your child achieve the best results possible, you should never underestimate your role as your child’s first educator.
Tips for educating a child are plentiful, yet not all will be applicable to you; their usefulness will depend on your child’s age, degree of blindness and the presence or absence of additional learning challenges. On this page, we offer a few general tips to make the learning experience at home more pleasurable and fruitful.
Obtain guidance from leading UK organisations like the Royal Institute of Blind People (RNIB); they offer incredibly detailed online information on what you and your child can expect from the early years to those of further/higher education, as well as an array of useful resources. The National Blind Children’s Society (NBCS), meanwhile, offers help and advice on aspects like how to select the best school for your child, and also shares an extensive resource base.
Be aware that visual impairment can affect your child in the following ways:
- Those who are blind or partially sighted lack access to much of the incidental learning that sighted learners avail of.
- They may take longer to complete tasks, which is not a reflection on their ability.
- Their ability to communicate – particularly through reading and writing – can also be affected. They will therefore need specialist skills and resources.
- They will need great attention with issues such as mobility and environmental awareness (e.g. to learn how to move through spaces confidently and safely).
- Blind children can find it more difficult to capture the subtle nuances of body language and expressions, making social interaction more challenging.
- Their self-esteem can be affected, especially if they are subjected to situations of discrimination.
Most brain development takes place in the first two years of life, so from the time your child is born, it is important to foster their communication skills:
- Talk to them in a calm, gentle voice; let your child know when you have arrived and when you are leaving a room.
- Develop their sense of touch: The blind and partially sighted will need to rely on their hands to a great degree, so get them used to it early. Encourage them to touch your face and trace your lips as you talk, so they understand the shapes lips make when making different sounds.
- Explain the sounds your child is hearing around them: the washing machine, the fridge opening, water running…
- Use co-active movements: as your child is doing something, for instance, when your child is eating, put your hand on your child’s and tell him. ‘Now, you are eating’.
- Encourage your baby to look at you and encourage smiling; this fosters good social interaction skills.
- Break down tasks into small steps (for instance, if the task is washing hands, use ‘Backward Chaining’ i.e., practise the steps backwards. For instance, 1. Dry your hands. 2. Put your hands under the running water. 3. Turn the water on. 4. Squirt a little soap onto your palm.
Don’t jump to the next step until the previous one is mastered. Try ‘Forward Chaining’ next, which starts with the first step.
- Look into specialist schools like Linden Lodge in London; they provide a top quality education for those who have visual impairment or multi-disabled visual impairment.
- Visit Talk To Your Baby, the National Literacy Trust’s early years language campaign, which teaches parents how to communicate with their kids from birth to age three.
- An absolute must read for parents of young children is the guide: Early Support: Helping Every Child Succeed. You will find highly useful information on everything from the importance of social interaction (comforting and giving baby lots of cuddles is key!) right through to how to teach your child to listen. The guide states, “Words are symbols that ‘refer’ to something. Babies and young children first have to learn what an object is and what it’s used for before they can make the link between the object an the word. So recognising and understanding what you do with a brush, cup, spoon (ie increasing concept knowledge about objects) is important for learning meaningful language”.
- Read up on the award-winning work of Leeds VI Team, whose early years curriculum has taken many years to develop. Their programme includes a host of resources in zip-lock bags containing fun, useful activities for blind kids.
- When your kids are at the school stage, plan ahead for study sessions. Provide them with the materials they need (enlarged texts etc.) and real life material, to provide them with opportunities for kinaesthetic and tactile learning.
- Alternate visual and non-visual tasks to avoid eye fatigue in those with partial eyesight.
- Teach your kids to skim quickly through written text or text in braille, by emphasising the importance of titles and first sentences of paragraphs.
- When it comes to particular subjects (like mathematics, science, art, etc.), there are various considerations to take into account. RNIB provides a series of highly detailed guides on why certain subjects are particularly important to blind children and how to best teach them. Art, for instance, helps the blind understand difficult to grasp concepts like size, order and distance. The art guide provides a host of fun activities including spray painting, crazy foam, pottery, clay printing and much more. It is vital to read each and every one of these guides, since they will provide hours of really fun learning for you and your child. The guides cover everything from maths to music. The lesson ideas offered are simply fascinating!
- Be prepared to invest in resources. Fun items like Wikki Stix make maths, reading and Pre-Braille lessons tons of fun, while the RNIB’s Primary Maths Kit, for instance, comprises a host of organised activities that take so much time and work off your hands. One of the basics when it comes to education is making learning time as fun as you can; good resources can go a long way towards helping you achieve just that.