American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2017 LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES
by Merry-Noel Chamberlain
From the Editor: Merry-Noel Chamberlain is a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) and instructor in orientation and mobility (O&M) outside Omaha, Nebraska. At the 2005 convention of the National Federation of the Blind she received the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award. Currently she is earning a doctorate in transformational leadership through Concordia University, and in 2016 she was the recipient of an NFB scholarship.
It is often said that parents are a child's first teachers. This idea holds true whether the child is blind or sighted. Before a child begins to walk, parents, grandparents, and older siblings provide physical support to help her or him build strength and balance. When the time is right, these helpers support the child during those first shaky steps.
Children who are blind or visually impaired get the same assistance as sighted children do when they learn to walk. In addition they generally receive formal training from a certified instructor of orientation and mobility (O&M), either at home or in a daycare or school setting. I am an O&M instructor and the parent of a blind child, my daughter Ashleah. I have been teaching O&M to Ashleah since she became my daughter at the age of eight.
In most cases children of school age receive their O&M instruction in and around the school building. Ashleah receives much of her O&M instruction in the community, and mainly it occurs during teachable moments. A teachable moment is an opportunity that happens spontaneously. Such moments are highly beneficial, since the action takes place within real life situations.
When the O&M instructor is constrained by time and location, many teachable moments are lost. As a parent, I have discovered that I can use teachable moments to help my daughter gain valuable skills in orientation. On the other hand, I have sometimes put on my O&M instructor hat within the school setting to teach Ashleah. When she was in middle school I provided instruction a week before the beginning of the school year, a practice I continue now that she is in high school. Ashleah and I visit her school and walk to all of her classes in the order of her daily schedule. Each year I instruct her less and less as her mental mapping skills improve. Despite my training in the field, I recognize that the person who helps orient a student to the school setting does not have to be an O&M professional.
In this article I suggest some possible teachable moments you can use to help your child gain orientation and mobility skills. First, let us look at the words orientation and mobility so we are all on the same page. Orientation is knowledge of where you are within a given space, such as a room, building, block, or city. Mobility involves the actual techniques used for movement. It includes how to hold the cane, how to arc the cane, and how to walk with the cane from one place to another. To become competent in mobility, one may need to turn to an O&M instructor. To build and enhance mobility skills, one can use teachable moments that occur outside formal lessons.
Your child has probably learned some basic mobility skills from his or her instructor. However, as a parent you may not be aware of the basics. The following list is not intended to be a complete set of instructions on how to use the long, white cane. These are simply points you may observe; they may suggest questions you can ask to help jog your child's memory about what she needs to do to become a competent traveler.
1. Allow plenty of time for the teachable moment. This is not a time to be in a rush. Your child may need time to problem solve and to develop mental mapping skills.
2. Let your child make a mistake. If your child walks down the wrong aisle in the store, allow her to explore. She is building problem solving skills. As she explores, she gathers bits of knowledge that can be stored for future reference.
3. Problem solving opportunities help individuals develop mental mapping skills. Mental mapping is the ability to create a map of an area within one's mind. Using the example above, while your child walks down the wrong aisle at the supermarket, she may discover the ice cream section, though she is not in need of ice cream at the time. (I have yet to meet a child who is not in need of ice cream.) She may make a mental note of where the ice cream is located. The very next time your family is in need of ice cream, she can be the one to retrieve it. This knowledge is a form of mental mapping.
4. During the teachable moment, walk quietly several feet behind your child. If you are in a store, you may even walk in the next aisle. If you are at a fast-food restaurant, you might sit at your table while your child goes up to the counter. You are there, but you are not directing your child's movements. You may step forward and assist if you feel your child truly needs your help if she is seriously frustrated or confused. Again, it is best to give the child ample space and time to develop problem solving skills. Be far enough away so that she feels independent, but stay close enough to assist if needed. For safety reasons, be aware of your child's location at all times, just as you would with a sighted child.
Incidentally, if you are a parent who also uses a cane for O&M, it is important to permit your child to focus on the auditory information from her own cane without being confused by the information projecting from yours. I often turn my cane upside down when I am monitoring my daughter. In this way the steel tip does not strike the ground to create distracting sound and echoes. I learned this technique from a blind mobility instructor, and I use it when I monitor my students as well.
5. Instead of jumping in to help, offer some wait time. Wait time is the time you give your child to process the situation, determine a solution or hypothesis, create a plan, and carry out the plan to test the hypothesis. If he is successful, your child continues traveling to his destination. If not, he may need time to discover a different solution or hypothesis. If you jump in with the solution, he will not have the opportunity to process the situation himself. He may come to expect that someone always will be there to solve his O&M woes. When you provide wait time, he can build problem solving skills that may be transferred to other situations. Of course, please step in if you feel that your child is truly frustrated and needs your help. After all, you know your child best.
6. You may need to redirect people who want to be overly helpful. Often they are not aware that your child is being monitored, or they simply want to do a good deed. It is your call if you want your child to ask for or accept assistance. Personally, I think about the goal of the teachable moment. Is it to get from point A to point B? Is it to learn how to ask or receive help from others, perhaps in the form of information? For some of my students, asking for assistance from a pedestrian, customer, or store clerk is a scary experience. Practice in a safe situation can help the child overcome this fear.
Now that you have some basic mobility guidelines and some teachable moment strategies, you probably wonder how you can help your child with orientation and mobility. Here are some O&M teachable moments I have used with my daughter over the years. As I mentioned above, teachable moments are opportunities that come on the spur of the moment. They are very beneficial, since the action takes place within real life situations. The more meaningful the activity, the more memorable the experience is to the child. Concrete memories can be retrieved and used later on.
As you read this list you will probably say to yourself, "Yes, I've been in that situation," or "Yes, I can do that." Know that you are already on the right track. Have fun with these teachable moments!
Stores and Restaurants: Many stores and restaurants have similar floor plans, especially when they belong to a chain. For example, many Wal-Marts, Targets, Walgreens, McDonalds, Burger Kings, or Cracker Barrels are laid out in the same way. If a person has been in one, it is not problematic to maneuver in another. Supermarkets also are quite similar in layout. The cash register is located near the entrance. Meat, baked goods, and dairy items are usually located around the outer edges of the store. The produce section is generally near the entrance, and customer service is near the front. When you are in this type of location, share this knowledge with your child.
Sidewalks: A nice straight sidewalk is an excellent place to practice walking in a straight line. If you are out walking and find such a sidewalk, challenge your child to walk ahead of you without touching the edges of the sidewalk. The faster she walks, the straighter.
Shorelines: If you are walking along a sidewalk with a curb or building on one side, ask your child to be the leader. Have him let you know when he approaches a door, another sidewalk, or the corner of a building. He can do this by using a technique called shorelining. When the child is shorelining, the cane touches the edge of the sidewalk, curb, or building each time the tip is on that side of the body. The child then follows this tactual line. Be sure the shoreline is fairly straight. Inset doorways, bike racks, or other irregularities can lead to frustration.
Fast Food: Perhaps you're at a fast-food restaurant, and your child wants some cherry pie. Hand him the money, give him some general directions to the counter, and send him on his way. Allow him to problem solve the path back to your table. If he really has a taste for pie, his motivation is likely to be strong.
Trash bins: When everyone has finished eating at a fast-food restaurant or food court, ask your child to take the tray and empty it in the trash. She may need some directions about where the trash bin is located.
Automatic or main doors: When you are about twenty feet from an automatic door or some other main door to a large store, step back and ask your child to locate the store entrance. Sometimes the opening and closing of the doors by other customers can be heard, so this is an easy one.
Cash registers: Just out of earshot of the dings of the cash register, ask your child to locate the checkout area. Next time, increase the distance when you give him this teachable moment opportunity. For an older child, ask her to locate the cash register from all the way at the back of the store.
Shoe Section: Certain areas of department stores have their own unique smells. The shoe section is one of them. From a few yards away, ask your child to locate the shoe section. Then, to make it a little more challenging, ask her to locate the section with her size shoes. She can do this by selecting a shoe and placing the sole next to her own. If the first shoe is too big, she can go up and down the aisle until she is successful.
Fruit and Vegetable Section: Ask your child to find a sweet apple. Once he finds the apple bins, it is simple to find the sweet apples because they have bigger bumps on the bottom. The ones that are smooth on the bottom can be sour.
Malls: When you walk in the mall, ask your child to identify stores that offer great olfactory stimulation. These include Starbucks, Bath and Body Works, etc.
Street Crossings: When you stand at a street corner with your child, ask him to tell you when it is safe to cross. He can determine when it is safe by listening to the direction of the traffic.
Cardinal Directions: When you stand at an intersection, ask your child in which direction the automobiles are traveling. Try to use cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) rather than right and left. Right and left are also important concepts for your child to know.
Restrooms: Eventually every child reaches the stage where he or she is ready to visit a public restroom unaccompanied by a parent. When an older child needs to go to the restroom, give him directions and be sure to review the return route. Whenever possible, use cardinal directions rather than simply saying right or left, as it can be confusing to reverse directions on the return trip. It can be difficult to hold back, but let your child go alone. As he returns, provide some sound clues to help him find his way back.
Elementary School: When you visit your child's school, let your child be the leader. Ask her to show you where her classroom is located. Invite her to show you how to get to key locations in the school such as the front office, cafeteria, gym, and music and art classrooms.
Middle and High School: Go to school with your child before the first day of class and discover the locations of all the required classrooms. Ask your child to walk through his daily schedule, and point out some landmarks along the way. Landmarks are stationary items that can be used as reference points, such as water fountains or differences in the texture of the floor. If the item can be moved, it is not a landmark.
Neighborhood: If you and your child are walking to the school or a friend's house, ask her to lead the way. Allow her to walk ahead, but instruct her to wait at corners, even if you are not crossing the street. Until it is appropriate for her age and skill level, do not permit her to cross the street without you.
Treats: Looking for a special treat at the store is a great way to motivate your child to explore and problem solve. Ask her to show you how to get to the bakery section, where free cookies are given away. Ask her to locate the dairy or ice cream section, which is usually at the back of the store. If your child wants a special item or two, have her go to customer service. She can ask an employee to show her to the item she wants. Once she finds it, she can go through checkout and meet you at the front of the store. This activity may be too advanced for some teens, so you may wish to practice a time or two before you send your child to do it independently. Once your child can find and purchase items at the store without your help, you can drop her off and wait for her in the car. When she is done, honk the horn to provide a sound cue so she can return to your vehicle.
After a teachable moment, pat your child on the back for a job well done. It can be valuable to talk to him about the experience. Be sure to ask open-ended questions such as "What did you like or not like about what you did?" "How did you feel when you were done?" Be sure to praise success. If your child asked for assistance, praise him for knowing when and how to ask for help. If you stepped in to help without being asked, tell him why you did so.
Teachable moments lead to nuggets of knowledge you allow your child to discover. Each teachable moment is a gift your child can treasure and build upon, even though she might find the experience a bit frustrating at the time. ("What? You're making me work?") If your child can problem solve in one location when you are with her, she will most likely be able to problem solve in another location when you are not present.