Emery, 3, held a wheel in his hands, growling out motor sounds as he twisted it back and forth. His classmates sat on the floor listening to the teacher, in various stages of raptness, while the lone boy squirmed and moved around the classroom. He wasn’t interacting with his classmates and he wasn’t paying much attention to the teacher.
His caregivers labeled him autistic, but Martha Jeffers wasn’t convinced. Jeffers is one of two people in her region of St. Lucia who work with children who are multiply disabled and visually impaired (MDVI). She felt strongly that Emery’s blindness and home life were causing his behavior problems in preschool, but she needed information to confirm her theory. So she did what most people do nowadays when looking for information: she went on the Internet. And there she signed up for an eLearning course on visual impairment and autism, offered by Perkins School for the Blind.
Perkins eLearning courses give far-flung educators and professionals the opportunity to take a class on their own time, while still being able to interact with fellow learners. Each week, professional development students log on to the Perkins eLearning website to get their reading assignment. Afterward, they participate in lively online discussions with their fellow students – exchanging ideas, posing questions and responding to comments.
Jeffers was already familiar with Perkins. The program she worked for, under the St. Lucia Blind Welfare Association, had received assistance from Perkins in the 1990s when it was just starting. This past year, Perkins provided staff for another of its programs.
Plus, Jeffers had been viewing Perkins’ webinars for several years, learning about blindness-related topics such as social skills and communication techniques. When she saw a notice on the site promoting Perkins’ new eLearning course, she decided to give it a try.
Jeffers is warm and engaging, with a smile that lights up her whole face. She lives on a small Caribbean island that’s just 238 square miles, with a population of 170,000. She has one coworker, George Lindon, who also works with children with MDVI. They don’t have many opportunities discuss education plans or compare teaching strategies with their peers. The Perkins eLearning course gave Jeffers access to a group of professionals in her field facing similar challenges, with whom she could share stories and solutions. She was determined to use the opportunity to help Emery.
“We each were told to bring several case studies to the group to discuss, with one (student) in mind to make a plan for,” she said. “I knew I wanted the plan for Emery.”
If online learning had not been available, Jeffers said she would have had to travel overseas to get this kind of information and interaction with fellow professionals. That’s an expensive proposition when you come from a small island nation with limited resources. Instead, Jeffers brought the assignments back to Lindon and several other local teachers. They discussed them and worked out solutions as a group. In this way, they could all benefit from the information at a reasonable cost.
Online workshops are relatively new for Perkins, as it seeks to reach more teachers of the visually impaired – especially those who work with students who have multiple challenges. “Lots of kids with multiple disabilities also have visual impairment,” said Mary Zatta, educational resources manager for Perkins Training and Educational Resources Program. “We have a lot of information for that population.”
Zatta said the goal of the online learning is to reach general special education teachers as well as teachers of the visually impaired. She does this through e-newsletters for educators and email blasts, as well as by going on the road to conferences and making presentations. She is also looking to engage the international audience more often, by offering courses such as Individual Education Program (IEP) development, which is relevant for teachers in many countries.
While one big benefit of eLearning is participants’ ability to learn from different time zones around the globe, it’s the online discussions – the heart of the workshops, said Zatta – that make the experiences so valuable. “They engage with each other, share ideas,” said Zatta. “They love it.”
Jeffers appreciated the opportunity to absorb new ideas from her fellow teachers. “I liked finding out what worked for them,” she said. “You cannot take it wholesale, but you can take the parts that work for you.”
The most helpful parts for Jeffers were the concrete examples of how to give support to a child with vision impairment: a chart with a picture of each of the day’s planned activities, for a child with some vision. For a child without any sight, the chart would have tangible objects to denote activities.
“If you have a child, especially one with communication issues, it’s really helpful to create a visual support to represent his activities for that day,” she said. By creating something that shows the order of activities, the child feels in control and gains confidence. “It gives him a concept of time, a beginning and end,” she said.
Jeffers was also convinced, after hearing from other teachers, that a behavior plan was a good start for Emery. Whether or not he’s autistic – which she still doesn’t know – she said, “He needs structure, and by doing this he will get the structure he needs.”
For Emery, building an activity into his schedule that he enjoys helps him understand that once he finishes a particular task, he gets to do something fun.
Jeffers knows she faces a challenge with Emery. He was born into difficult circumstances to a teen mother. In his early life, he spent a lot of time with his godmother, sitting in her lap and holding the steering wheel as she drove. As a result, Emery has a strong attachment to anything shaped like a wheel.
“He can make any kind of engine noise: highway sound, reverse, all kinds,” Jeffers said. Because of this fascination, she wants his caregivers to use the wheel as a reward for appropriate behavior such as sitting and listening, or completing an activity. She wants to help his caretakers set realistic and achievable goals for Emery.
One example, she said, is braille training. “They were working to teach him braille, so he can read,” she said. But before he can do that, he needs to understand that the dots have meaning. “I’m trying to help them understand that it’s more important for him to differentiate between what is his name and what is not, instead of learning (all the) letters.”
All in all, Jeffers said the Perkins eLearning experience was enjoyable, helpful and challenging. “You’re always working,” she said. “The source material they give you, you have to go find out about it, explore it, relate to it.”
And though the online class has ended, she’s already missing it. “When it’s over, you ask, ‘What’s next?’” she said. “It keeps you always involved, always learning.”