Wednesday 28 March 2012

Pillars of Support

Pillar 3. Encourage the Child to be Independent

A major aspect of independence concerns what is often referred to as two specific skills, those being orientation and mobility. Orientation, as I see it, refers to the perception that a visually impaired child has of their position, location and direction in relation to their immediate environment. Mobility refers to their ability to move about and ‘navigate’ their way within and through that environment. Both these abilities and skills normally develop with the emerging conceptual foundations, which are inevitably impacted negatively by lack of sight, since the majority of information the brain receives is sight – based (some 70 to 80% of all learning is through the visual pathways).  Mobility relies heavily in the early days on the development of the motor system, and motor development relies on sight. The development of early pre-mobility milestone skills such as head control, crawling, sitting unsupported, grasping and reaching, standing, cruising and walking are clearly vital in the child’s later developing mobility. But the main motivating factor for all of these skills is the sense of vision. 

Much early development is tied up with the sense of sight. A child sees something interesting and is driven to move towards it. But having a visual impairment alters the way children receive information from the world. Children have to rely on other senses to find out about the world. The second distance sense, hearing, becomes more dominant and the other senses generally take on more leading roles. Learning that is normally by observation relying heavily on imitation has to find other routes.

Children need support and help at the earliest stages. However all this can affect the child’s sense of independence, if it is not managed properly. Early intervention is absolutely vital and should never be underestimated. Years ago studies of neglected children in Romanian orphanages demonstrated clearly how important adult intervention is when children have limited mobility. Neglected children were seen to be painfully underdeveloped. The studies showed that children simply do not develop if they are left virtually alone.

However there are two sides to this issue and a balance has to be found between too little intervention and too much. To compensate for their lack of vision – however severe - children will need different levels of intervention. Allowing for natural maturation the influence of external factors is not insignificant and makes a powerful difference. I always encourage parents to look at the environment, in terms of lighting, decor, clutter. I also recommend doing as much visual stimulation as they can using fibre-optic lights and all manner of objects and toys, at varying distances from the child to push the developing boundaries of vision to its limits. Light is always a powerful motivator to a young child as is movement. As the child grows and matures they begin at a certain point to self-initiate play activities. At this point you might say their independence really begins to develop. When the child does not need the adult to provide a focus of interest and play then  the child can develop their own ways of amusing themselves. Independence can be encouraged by setting up an appropriate environment and not intervening too much or too soon. The temptation is always there to step in if the adult perceives the child needs help. But my view is that you should allow the child plenty of time to start to find things that they will find interesting. Give a child long enough and they will begin to interact with the environment. Some children are highly passive and this leads adults to take the leading role all the time. But in my experience many children eventually grow out of this passiveness and judging the right time to stop intervening should be obvious to those who know the child. 

As they grow their needs will change over time of course. Children at school will often require significant input that is extra to the regular curriculum. It will require learning to use specialist skills and  assistive technology, information technology and all the access features that computers now have. 

I have to say clearly however that a major goal of support in education is the child's independence. If you are an LSA your role, as well as ensuring the child’s safety and making the curriculum accessible, is to foster the child’s independence. Your ‘raison d’être’ in reality is to do yourself out of a job, to bring the child to a place where they no longer need you. In the outside world the child will probably not have the luxury of you being with them. They will encounter obstacles and difficulties; there will be hazards and potential dangers and they will have to work it out for themselves. So try to encourage children to work things out. Show and teach strategies. If necessary take them outside the class to the ICT room and there teach specific computer and keyboard skills, which they will need in order to be independent. These are going to be essential skills later on. They will develop the child's confidence and independence. 

Transitions are particularly important. The early days in a new setting should focus on familiarizing the child with their new environment, making them feel at home and learn to navigate their way around. You can show them around, point things out, give verbal descriptions of everything (even if the child has some vision  this is useful), and describe things that may be far away. All this helps the child to gain confidence in their new environment.

The question we should ask is what can bring more independence to visually impaired children? Perhaps you might have some ideas or suggestions…?