Paths to Literacy

for students who are blind or visually impaired

Environmental Adaptations for Preschool Classrooms Serving Children who are Blind or Visually Impaired

 

Story box for A Pocket for Corduroy.By Peg Palmer

The information on this page was presented at the 2005 Workshop by Peg Palmer, who is is a preschool teacher for the Board of Education and Services for the Blind in Connecticut. In this presentation she describes her approach to environmental adaptations for children who are blind.

 

 

Goals

  • To promote increased independence while learning the concepts of the preschool curriculum.
  • To ensure that "Independence Goals" in all areas of development are established, including cognitive, social, language, compensatory, fine motor, gross motor skills, and self help.
  • To have regular team meetings to update progress.

Initially, Peg Palmer and her team assess the young student by using the Oregon Project evaluation measures (Cognitive, Social, Language, Compensatory, Fine Motor, Gross Motor, and Self Help). Then, they, the aide (if there is one), the preschool teacher, and the parents of the child meet and address each of the evaluated areas to see where the student can be more independent. The idea is to establish a change in the group's mindset and methods to assist in this goal. It is recommended that the full team meet regularly to prevent deviations from the program.

Four areas to look at when adapting the environment for a totally blind child who is entering nursery schools or preschool special ed:

  1. Looking at the mindsets of the educational team (the most critical piece, in Peg Palmer's opinion)
  2. Mobility
  3. The Room
  4. The Activities

Essentially, the evaluation has two dynamic parts. Constant assessments are made on the child's progress, and also on the environment surrounding the child. The idea is to consider both parts in a complementary way to yield practical results.

Common Misconceptions

The following misconceptions may not be verbally spoken, but are often in the background thoughts of the educational team's mind. Peg Palmer and her team continuously confront these misconceptions by clarifying the following myths:

  1. The child who is blind is helpless.
  2. An adult should always be with the child who is blind throughout the day in nursery school.
  3. The child who is blind should always be guided throughout the room and protected.

Adaptation

  1. Mindsets
  2. Mobility
  3. The Room
  4. The Activities.

Mindsets

Teachers and aides in the classroom should move from "hands on" to "hands off" as the child gains independence.

  • The team should guard against overprotection.
  • Adults should not be part of all social interactions.
  • Adults can help set up play situations and get conversations started, but then should move away from the activity.
  • The adult's role is to: ensure the preschool curriculum is adapted, guard against injury, and adapt materials as necessary.

Laurel Hudson has a beautiful book, Classroom Collaboration, on the involvement of paraprofessionals and aides in the classroom. Her concept of the hands off aide is very useful when thinking of the young blind student in the classroom. The idea is to be hands off, not hands on.  Many aides think they are not doing their job if they are not attending to the child every second of the day. Peg Palmer and her team expend a great deal of effort convincing them to use the hands off approach.  The children's environment needs to be established by getting them over to the sand table, then observing them from a distance. Although the educational team has the best intentions, they need to be relieved of the notions that the student should never bump into things, never get hurt, and should not be late to an activity. Therefore, the whole team needs to guard against overprotection. The families support in this effort is very important and should be encouraged at their own pace.

Peg Palmer notes that in the nursery schools and the preschool special education classrooms, the social aspects of children's lives are often disrupted by adults. Three-year olds are naturally pretty messy. They do not talk and interact in the same manner as adults.  Adults generally have a need to "tidy up" preschool interactions, which prevents blind children from naturally conversing with their peers. It is OK to let them throw a little bit of sand and steal a few toys from each other. That is what three-year-olds do!

To summarize, the main roles of the aide or the adult is to adapt the student's curriculum, guard against MAJOR injury, and adapt materials in the environment.

Mobility

  • Teach sighted children in the classroom simple lessons about techniques to guide blind children. Whenever possible, ask the child who is blind to select their guide.
  • Let the child who is blind self-navigate through the room, even if it takes him or her a bit longer to join the activity. A few bumps and bruises along the way are OK too!

Peg Palmer and her team teach sighted 3 year olds very simple lessons for the sighted guide, who then lead the blind student. One nursery school decided if a young blind girl could only leave the room with a partner, then everyone else should have to pair up. If you walked into that nursery school, you could not find that blind child because everybody has a partner! Additionally, you can have the blind student chose her guide (as much as possible), which will allow her to take control of as much as she can. Besides, if other kids are picking their partners, why shouldn't she?

Once the child has adapted to the room, he should be left alone to find his way.  Sometimes they may be a little late getting to circle or snack time, but it is not the end of the world. Sometimes they may get a few more bruises than the others, but it is a learning process.

The Room

  • Allow for access to the room before the program starts. This allows the child to develop an inner map of the room in a quiet setting.
  • Encourage the teacher to set up the room and stay with the same arrangement throughout the year.
  • Use tactile labels in addition to print and Braille: special texture labels outside room door, on furniture in preschool room, etc.

Peg Palmer and her team suggest blind children have access to the room before school starts (even if it is just a day or a few hours before). This gives them a chance to start mapping the room without normal classroom distractions.  Teachers are encouraged to set up the room to maintain a constant environment. Labeling can give a child the chance to figure out if they have a specific seat at a designated table for a particular activity. Certain rooms are labeled on the outside of the doors with different tactile labels. Both tactile and Braille labeling is sometimes used to give children an extra sense of their surroundings.

Activities

  • Real materials are always better than replicas or plastic versions.
  • The Book Corner should have Braille books and Story Boxes along with picture books.
  • Most nursery school art projects can easily be turned into 3D art. All the preschoolers should have access to the materials: doilies, wood bits, foam, cotton, etc.

Adapting the activities is not necessarily difficult. Often, teachers are initially overwhelmed by what they anticipate will need to be done to make the classroom friendly for their blind student.When projects are adapted to meet the needs of the young child who is blind, the key is to have available three dimensional materials. When these materials are available, preschool teachers find that all the preschoolers benefit from this multi-sensory approach. With all the children benefiting from these materials, it becomes much easier to incorporate them into daily use.

Some basic things to keep in mind: When teaching blind children, fake replicas of objects should not be used. Peg recommends that children who are blind have access to materials on the science table. Science tables showcase real objects like leaves, ice, rocks, apples, and other objects, which the child can touch and experience. It is important these kinds of multi-sensory objects are incorporated into the blind child's daily learning, whether at the science table, the kitchen area, the dress-up area and so on.

The American Printing House for the Blind offers  beautiful print-tactile book collections. Often, the sighted student children are just as enthralled by these books as the children who are blind! Other helpful resources are story boxes, which bring stories to life (some examples are shown below).

 Jellybean Jungle story box
 
Most nursery schools spend time each day helping the students create projects. These projects are very easy to make 3-dimensional. Peg Palmer suggests that both the sighted and blind students take part in the multi-sensory (or 3D) materials, as everyone benefits from interacting with them. Peg Palmer and her team recommend making homemade tactile books, in addition to using some of the tactile books that are now more commercially available. Story boxes, pictured on this page, are also great. "A Pocket for Corduroy" has been taken out of its box and shows that it contains a pocket, all the things that go in the pocket, and Corduroy himself