What's Different about the Way Visually Impaired Children Learn?
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Parents whose child has a visual impairment may wonder what effect impaired vision will have on their child. There is no single answer that applies to all children. Your child's specific visual condition, the presence of any other disabilities, her personality and temperament, plus many other factors, will all influence how she reacts to her particular visual impairment.
Children who are visually impaired are as unique and as varied as any other group of children. One overall statement, however, does apply to most children who are visually impaired: A visually impaired child will typically learn about the world in a different way from a child without a visual impairment.
Depending on individual circumstances, a visually impaired child:
- May not be able to rely on her sight to obtain information, and may therefore need to use senses other than vision to acquire information
- Will usually need particular kinds of attention and extra experiences from infancy on to learn skills that sighted children develop as a matter of course by watching people and objects around them and imitating what they see
- Will typically need to have clear explanations provided for her, sometimes repeatedly
- Will need to have direct experiences set up for her in order to learn what sighted children learn by looking. For example:
- Your visually impaired child may need to be able to pet the neighbor's dog from head to tail and to spend time touching the dog's entire body in order to understand the animal referred to in a story as "a dog" and to determine what a dog really is. In fact, she may need to touch a number of different dogs over time to really understand what a dog is and to learn that there are several kinds of dogs.
- She may need to help stir the batter for a batch of cookies, help put them in the oven, and be told that the good smell coming from the kitchen is the cookies baking—and then taste the cookies—in order to make the connections between the process of baking and the food she eats.
Because limited vision can have a strong impact on your child's ability to understand concepts, learn language, move about freely with confidence, and develop and grow in a variety of ways, you and your child's teachers will need to use alternate methods and strategies for teaching your child basic concepts and the meanings of words now and how to read, write, interact socially, and perform various daily activities as she grows. Teachers of students with visual impairments are experts in using these methods.
What You Can Do
In addition to seeing if your child is eligible for early intervention services and working with a teacher of students with visual impairments, you can help your child grow and develop by remembering that she can learn almost anything that anyone else learns—but she may have to learn it in a different way. Try to keep the following principles in mind.
Give your child explanations and descriptions and ask her questions!
Don't assume that your child has learned something just because she's been exposed to it. Your child may need to be specifically taught what a sighted child learns by observing what goes on around her.
Remember that your child may only be obtaining small pieces of information
Sighted children learn by looking at the whole picture before exploring the parts. Many visually impaired children experience the world the other way around. Your child may have to rely on what she can touch, feel, or hear and, in doing so, she may be getting unconnected pieces of information. You can help her put these pieces together to form a full concept by providing extra explanations and giving her a chance to feel things and explore. For example, your child might need to be shown a banana, help you peel it, feel the banana without its skin, have a bite of it, and then help you mash it in her bowl to understand the qualities of bananas and that bananas can be eaten in different ways.
Help your child put it all together
When you go shopping at the mall, you may see a bakery but your child may instead smell it. You might see the video arcade but your child might hear it. If you explain and help her make sense of all the simultaneous information she may be receiving, you can help her increase her understanding of the world.
Provide direct experiences
Children who are visually impaired need to have direct experiences in order to learn what sighted children learn by looking. For example, your child might not know that blocks can be stacked on top of each other until you or her older brother show her how to stack them by using hand-under-hand or hand-over-hand.
Give her time
It may take longer for your child to do everyday tasks than other children who are sighted. Give her the time she needs to explore and to complete things on her own.
Build on other experiences
If possible, remind your child about a previous experience when telling her about something new. This can help make new information clearer and can help reinforce it in her mind. For example, "This dog's coat is straight and smooth—she's a Labrador retriever. Remember the dog with curly fur we met yesterday? He was a poodle."
Don't fall into the habit of "doing"
Because your child has to process so much information, it may be tempting to do things for her because it's quicker. It's also tempting for her to let you do things for her. But it's not really helpful to her in the long run. Let your child do things for herself, and in that way she'll learn to do them—and will also feel good about herself because she's learned.