Future Reflections        Winter 2014         EARLY CHILDHOOD

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Social Skills for the Younger Years: Interaction and Play

by Conchita Hernandez

From the Editor: Conchita Hernandez is a rehabilitation counselor and teacher of blind children in Nebraska. At NFB national conventions she coordinates the Spanish interpretation at general sessions, and she is famous for her salsa dancing workshops. The following article is based on a presentation Conchita gave at the 2013 NOPBC conference for parents and teachers.

"He's doing really well--for a blind child." Unfortunately, that's a statement parents sometimes hear from professionals in the field of blindness and visual impairment. All of us--parents and teachers--need to get rid of that thinking, the idea that the milestones for a blind child are different from those for a child who is sighted. When we say that something is age appropriate "for a blind child," we're saying that we expect less from that child than we do from a child who can see.

It's true that blind children sometimes fall behind their peers in certain areas, but those developmental lags are not the inevitable results of blindness or visual impairment. There are many ways to ensure that our blind and VI kids stay on track in reaching their developmental milestones; and, if they fall behind, there are strategies that will help them catch up.

One area where our blind kids may tend to lag behind is the vast realm we call social skills. Social skills are all of the subtle and not so subtle skills that help us connect with other people. For children, this means expressing themselves appropriately with parents and other adults. It also means learning to play and to enjoy being with other children. All children have to master these skills, and blind kids are no exception. However, sometimes we have to be creative and persistent to help our blind kids in the process.

Kids learn salsa dancing at one of Conchita Hernandez's workshops.

Movement Is Key

Adults tend to want to keep blind children sitting down. They're terribly afraid the blind child is going to bump into things or fall down stairs or touch something that might hurt his hands. When the child is safely seated in a chair, the grown-ups around him feel less anxious--nothing to worry about, right? But actually, sitting still is detrimental to the child in many, many ways! Kids move around. That's one of the things they do. As soon as they're able, they're up and running! It's vital for your blind child to move around just as a sighted child does.

The use of a cane at an early age greatly facilitates movement. Professionals used to say, "Don't give a child a cane until she's at least twelve years old and can use it correctly." You would never say, "Don't give your kindergartener pencils and paper. She's too young to write correctly." Children learn to write through lots of practice. We give small children paper and pencils, and we let them scribble. The same applies to exposing a young blind child to the cane. He may start by dragging the cane along the floor, and that's okay. He's getting used to having the cane in his hand, and he's finding out what he can do with it. He's starting to discover some of the things the cane can tell him about his surroundings.

Exploration and Discovery

Let the blind child explore her surroundings. When a sighted child walks into a room, she can look around and see who's there. She can see what toys are in the room and decide what she might like to play with. A blind child doesn't get all that visual information. In an unfamiliar environment, let your child explore and find out what's there and where everything is. Let her use her cane and find things out on her own.

Encourage your child to listen to his surroundings. Ask him what he hears. For example, here at the hotel, if you're in the lobby, your child may hear the doors opening. You might ask, "Do you hear that swishing sound? What do you think that could be?" Get him to think about it. If he says, "That's a door!" ask another question: "Where do you think that door leads?" The more questions he has to think about, the more he'll be engaged in figuring things out on his own.

I have often heard blind adults say, "My parents never let me fall." As parents we're all afraid that our kids are going to have accidents. But all kids fall now and then, whether they're blind or sighted. When a child is learning to use a cane, adults tend to say, "Watch out--there's a chair in the way!" If people constantly tell him about the obstacles in his path, he won't use his cane. If he doesn't use his cane and he trips over something, it's okay. He will learn a lesson from that experience. He'll learn that he fell because he wasn't using his cane. But if you're always there, warning him about what's ahead of him, he'll trust you rather than trusting the cane.

The best thing you can give your child is lots of direct experience. When you talk about something, let her touch it and give her time to explore it thoroughly. Even a model is pretty meaningless until your child has a strong foundation of firsthand experiences as a basis for understanding. The more your child understands about the world, the more easily she will relate to other children and the things they are doing and talking about.

Opportunities to Play

Provide your child with plenty of opportunities to play with peers, both blind and sighted. Often we tend to protect blind children. When they go into a situation where other children are playing, parents tend to hover. Parents want to help out if the child seems to be having difficulty. In reality, the more experiences they get playing with other children, the more blind children will be able to figure things out on their own.

NFB events provide opportunities for a blind child to play with both blind and sighted children. Playdates are also very helpful. You can arrange them with either blind or sighted kids. You may be hesitant when your child is with sighted children because you don't know where the interaction is going to go, but you'd be surprised. Kids will say, "Oh, you can't see? Okay, let's play this ..." Kids may think about blindness for a moment, and then they get an idea and move on. Let the kids figure it out and try not to interject yourself and your worries.

Teach your child to express herself in words. She needs to acquire the skills to explain what she wants. Instead of withdrawing and feeling left out, she can learn to ask, "May I play with the dollhouse, too?" When she knows how to use words effectively, she will be able to ask questions and gain a fuller understanding of everything that is going on around her.

When you and your child are alone, talk with him about his play experiences. Help him think of games he can play with the children he knows. Discuss how he may explain his blindness. Until he can talk comfortably about his vision loss, he won't be able to help others deal with their reactions. If he is confident and expresses himself openly, others will feel more comfortable around him. You can teach your child to say something such as, "I can't see very well, so let me know when you leave and I'll follow you."

It has been found that children who have more conversations with their parents about peer relationships are better liked by other children in their classrooms. They are also rated by teachers as being more socially competent than others. In other words, the more you talk to your child about interactions with other kids, the more his skills will be strengthened.

Be Creative

Sometimes your child may feel excluded from a game or other activity because it appears to be highly visual. Nobody has all the answers, but with a bit of problem solving, a simple solution can often be found. NFB Vice President Fred Schroeder tells a great story about an experience he had when he worked at an elementary school. The kids would play tag on the playground, and the blind students were always the first to get tagged. Fred was about to have a conversation with them and say, "Maybe there are some things that a blind kid just can't do."

Then the next day one of the blind kids came to school with a jar full of pebbles. He said, "Whoever is It has to shake this jar. If they don't shake the jar and they tag somebody, it doesn't count." This child used his creativity and figured out a way he could play the game.

Especially when our children are small, it's up to parents and teachers to do most of the creative problem solving. Instead of assuming that something can't be done by a child who is blind, think of ways to make it possible. The NFB is a fantastic resource. You're probably not the first parent who has struggled with a particular challenge; somebody somewhere has already come up with ideas. Talk to the Federationists in your local chapter or your state affiliate, and post your questions on the Blindkid listserv to get input from other parents.

When you're problem solving, think first about the purpose of the activity. Sometimes adults focus on the idea that an activity is inherently visual and immediately conclude that a blind child can't take part. If you focus on the purpose of the activity, you can get beyond the visual way it is being done. For example, a parent might use gestures to encourage a very young child to sit up. The end result isn't seeing and following gestures; the end result is sitting up. There are nonvisual ways to encourage a child to do that. You can invent games to encourage her to push herself into a sitting position. You can use sound-making toys such as bells to get her to reach and move.

Appropriate Behavior

A blind child needs to learn many nonverbal skills from an early age. When your child is young, you need to begin teaching her body language. A sighted child looks around and sees how people move. He observes the postures they take when they sit and stand. A blind child won't be aware of those things unless you teach him. Show your child how people sit in a chair, how they shake hands, and how they hold their heads. Some blind children may start to bob their heads up and down. They may develop this and other habits because they aren't getting feedback that the behavior looks strange to people. A lot of sighted people might do the same thing if they didn't understand that it looks weird! Give positive feedback when your child is doing well.

I worked with a blind three-year-old who had a head-bobbing habit. I would give him a signal to stop by touching his head. Eventually the behavior disappeared because we gave him other things to do physically. We kept him active. The more he was sitting down, the more he bobbed his head.

Other skills that a blind child must learn are those related to table manners. There are a lot of ways you can teach a blind child to eat neatly with utensils. You can have your child practice with a knife and fork by using Play Doh to represent food. He can dig with a spoon in a pail of sand to practice getting food into a spoon and lifting it up. By exploring his plate with a utensil, he will learn that he doesn't have to touch his food to know where it is. I like to tell a child, "Your knife and fork are like your cane. You're going to use your knife and fork to find out where things are on your plate."

Eye contact is a very important concept for a blind child to master. You may ask yourself, What does eye contact mean to someone who is blind? The blind child must learn that people look at each other when they speak. Sometimes a blind person will turn his head so that his ear faces the person who is talking, or he might raise or lower his head as he listens to express that he's paying attention. It's really important to teach the child to face the speaker so that he will look like everyone else. Head position is also very important.

The Four Cs

When you think about social skills, there are four words to keep in mind, all words that begin with C. The first one is confidence. Let your child know that she can do it, whatever it is, and that you will be there with her.

Another word is cooperation. Encourage your child to do things with others. Model how she can participate and be active.

Stimulate curiosity. Ask your child questions about what he hears and notices. Kids focus on all kinds of things nonvisually. If you stay focused on the visual, you tend to think that the blind child won't know anything about the world. The more you can focus on everything else, the more you can help your child pick up on the information he has access to.

Finally, communication is essential. Encourage your child to communicate verbally, to express wishes and feelings, and to ask questions. Teach her to use body language in ways that are commonly understood by others.

Stay Positive!

When you found out that your child is blind, you probably went through a mourning process. Maybe you thought his blindness was your fault, that you must have done something wrong. Perhaps sometimes you still want to deny his blindness, or perhaps you imagine that it will go away. But your child is relying on you to move forward. The more comfortable you become with your child's blindness, the more confident he will feel.

Children are always listening to what their parents say. If your child hears a sad tone in your voice or overhears you saying things like, "We're having such a hard time with this ..." she will take it in. I don't mean to negate the fact that sometimes things really are hard! But the more you convey a positive sense about your child, including her blindness as one of her many characteristics, the more your child will absorb a healthy attitude.

I would guess that most of you here today have kids with low vision. Only 10 percent of blind people are totally blind. It may be tempting to ask your child, "Can you see this?" or to praise her when she tells you she can see something you are pointing out to her. Please don't fall into this trap! When you ask a child with low vision whether she sees something, she begins to think, If I can see things, I'm doing well and people are happy. If I can't see things, I'm not doing well, and people are disappointed in me. If she can't see the thing you're pointing out, your child may lie about it; she wants you to be pleased with her.

Conclusion

I want to close with a quote from a blind girl who is now in college. "My instructor always encouraged me to ask questions," she said. "It drove me crazy all the time! But the independence I gained helps me in college today."

Teachers play a hugely important role in the teaching of all children, including children who are blind. But parents are the first and most important teachers children have. As parents, you have the opportunity to teach and reinforce attitudes and skills that will equip your child for a lifetime. It may feel like a daunting responsibility, but when you see your child exploring, making friends, and tackling new challenges, you will know that your efforts have been worthwhile.

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