What a rewarding job it can be to work with visually impaired children. I have the wonderful privilege of working alongside many dedicated teachers and support workers who are constantly challenged to think up ways of helping children to compensate for their visual difficulties. I am really grateful to Zoe who has written the following striking and delightful first article for the New Year on her initial experiences of working with a young visually impaired child in nursery, having had no experience beforehand. Zoe is a delight to work with and models best practice as far I am concerned. She is also very young, only just out of university. This article just goes to show how it is a learning curve for all of us. Out of our discussions together have come some quite innovative ideas and it has amazed me how Zoe has been able to implement these ideas and make them come alive in the learning environment. What an encouragement for all of us who work in mainstream schools and nurseries with very challenging children. Thank you Zoe, for taking up time in your Christmas hols to write this article.
Challenges of Working with a Visually Impaired Child
Two months ago I began working in a nursery of 43 children as an LSA for a visually impaired three year-old boy - lets call him Mark. On my first day I was somewhat thrown in at the deep end, being introduced to Mark as his “new special helper” and then sent on my way to shadow him, helping him with activities and making sure he stayed out of harms way. Mark is a very energetic, happy little boy who absolutely loves riding around the playground on the school tricycle and scooter as well going up and down the slide as fast as he possibly can shouting “like a rocket!” repeatedly. In fact, his navigational skills in the playground are so advanced that you would be forgiven when meeting him for the first time for not appreciating the extent to which his vision is really impaired. He is absolutely fearless. He does have accidents from time to time but not significantly more than any other three year-old. His parents have made a conscious effort to raise him this way, not wanting him to miss out or to be afraid of the world around him. When seeing Mark in action the benefits of this are obvious, although it does make my job rather more active! The flip side of this is that since his vision is so poor, he is often very unaware of the people around him and he does on occasion hurt his classmates when he gets overexcited. Part of my job is to help him to take more care when he moves around, for both his sake and the sake of others.
The fact that Mark does have some vision means that he has been raised and taught as a sighted child. He will attend mainstream school and relies on his vision before any of his other senses. I originally thought that this would make teaching him easier than if he had no vision at all, but it has come with its own set of difficulties. He is very tactile defensive and will not under any circumstances touch anything squishy such as play-dough and does not enjoy touching new things. His parents would like him to eventually learn braille in case his vision deteriorates further, which means an important part of my job is to build up sensitivity in his fingertips. I try to do this in a way that won’t overwhelm him. I have a bag of fabric squares which I ask Mark to put his hands into and match the fabrics using only his sense of touch. I also use a puzzle in which he must place different textured blocks in their appropriate positions. So far he is a little behind the rest of the group in his accuracy but this is to be expected and it is getting easier for him all the time.
While Mark is outgoing and friendly, he has been having some trouble making friends in his nursery. This isn’t to say that he only plays alone, for that is certainly not the case. He is happy to play with whoever approaches him, but his visual impairment has meant that it is extremely difficult for him to recognize and learn the names and faces of the 43 children playing around him, let alone form really solid friendships with them. Up until about a month ago, I had not heard him refer to any of the children by name. If somebody upset him, he would tell me about it but would only refer to them as “somebody”, unsure of who it had been. Learning the names of that many children is a daunting task for anybody, let alone for Mark. After discussions with the nursery teacher and with Maurice I carefully chose five children who I believe to be the most mature, patient and sensible in the nursery. Every day for around half an hour this small focus group and Mark join me in the ‘Quiet Room’ for a variety of activities with emphasis on developing senses and fine motor skills. All the children in the group love this and it has a very calming effect on Mark, since it makes a welcome change from the loud chaotic surroundings of the rest of the nursery.
I created a book with a photo of each of the five children’s faces including my own in A4 size which compliment recordings of each of their voices saying “Hi, my name is ___”. I hoped that studying this and listening to their voices would help Mark to recognize them in the nursery and in the playground. I did not anticipate quite how effective this would be! After only a week he could tell me the names of the children in the photos and had started to refer to a couple of them by name while playing. I plan to increase the number of children in the book for him to learn throughout this coming term.
There are times when Mark finds nursery a little overwhelming, particularly when he is tired. He can become frustrated and quite aggressive towards others, unsure of how to cope in his hectic surroundings. In times like that I usually ask him if he would like to go into the quiet room and read a story or play with his colour-changing orb light that he likes to hold and look at whilst telling me all of the different colours that he can see. After a few minutes he is usually calm enough that he can rejoin the rest of the group and play alongside them happily.
I am finding working with Mark incredibly rewarding, and seeing such fantastic results in such a short space of time is amazing. I am lucky that Mark is so bright and receptive and that I have been receiving such sound advice and support from Maurice and the nursery teachers – so I would like to say a massive thank you Maurice! I wouldn’t be able to do it without you. I just hope that I can teach him half as much as working with him is teaching me.