I will admit that the following is not rocket science. Also the focus is particularly on the transition into nursery so it may not appear all that relevant to older children. However much of it can apply and I leave the reader to work that out. In-class support is not as easy as it sounds. For a start, it is important that in school a child with a visual impairment is treated normally. There is a fine balance between inclusion and interference, between being a safety net and being ‘in-the-way’. An LSA (learning support assistant) providing support needs to have sensitivity and tact. Please remember that it is support. When a plant is growing you may put a stick to stop it toppling over. That stick is there to lean against, to support it, not to do all its growing for it. It does nothing else. Support does not mean doing things for children that they could and need to do themselves. Sometimes LSAs step in too quickly when a child is working things out. In time this approach will lead to an attitude of ‘learned helplessness’. They will become lazy and expect things to be done for them all the time. Adults will become the child’s servant at their beck and call. This is not helpful. It does help if the support workers can empathise with the child. For instance how would you (as an adult) like to have a ‘helper’ sitting with you in places and situations where you are sensitive about what others think about you? How would you like to have a stranger sit between you and your friend, preventing you chatting, talking to you so that miss what the teacher is saying? How would you like to be the only one in the class who can’t do things without help? It needs to be said for we take it so much for granted that there is nothing better in the world for a visually impaired child than to have a grown-up sitting next to them helping them. The truth is it is often not the best thing at all and frequently does nothing for the child. “But it says full time support on the statement so what am I supposed to do?” As you say, this is the dilemma. However there are in fact many ways to support a young person without being seated next to them and we must be astute and wise in our support and think of the child’s best interests at all times.
The Pillars of Support
With this in mind I want to put down what I see as some 'foundational principles': the fundamental principles or Pillars of Support, as I see them and this is the way that most parents and teachers really want it, believe me.I would as always be interested in any feedback on this article. Over the next week into March I shall add to it. This is the first pillar and I doubt anyone will argue with this one, but I hope you learn something from it.
Pillar no. 1 Use Clear Visual Strategies
Use very specific visual strategies and encourage them to develop their own. Some of these include:
- Sit the child close to the teacher, failing this next to the LSA to model the teacher's behaviour.
- Bring reading materials up close to the eyes e.g. by tilting a book
- Use reading materials with big and bold pictures and text
- Allow a child their own small copy of a ‘big book’; in groups the LSA can sit with them and point out things as the teacher does
- Draw attention to fine detail and test their understanding: let them play back to you what they have seen
- Supervision should be targeted to certain areas - stairs, curbs, climbing equipment, outside play. Supervise those who are light sensitive in bright sunlight, ensure they wear the correct cap or sunglasses and cream
- Be alert to signals of poor vision - wandering eyes and lack of concentration, lack of effort, underachievement, unfinished work
- Keep the child challenged and interested, especially those who may need extra variety and challenge or may be ‘gifted and talented’
- Allow the child opportunities to interact with peers and form good relationships
- Observe the child in the early days to see what the obvious hazards are and make necessary modifications. There is usually no need to go overboard but tailor environmental changes to the child’s needs. Removing obstacles on the floor is an obvious example; lowering or raising light levels appropriately is another.
- Head turning is a child’s own strategy and should be understood and encouraged. There are two reasons for this. In nystagmus there is a viewing angle where the eye movements slow down or even cease (called the null point); this is the child’s best viewing position. In other cases a head turn may reduce the light rays hitting the retina directly and so the image may be sharpened.