A new study in a prestigious professional journal suggests there may be a way to help teens with CHARGE syndrome significantly improve their socialization skills – by allowing them to play with other children in a structured, supportive environment.
The study, coauthored by two Perkins School for the Blind staff members, is important because it offers a new strategy to tackle one of the toughest challenges in deafblind education, which is helping kids with multiple sensory impairments and other disabilities acquire the social skills they need to successfully interact with other people.
“The study found that structured, planned play activities were really effective in helping children who are deafblind to develop social skills,” said Mary Zatta, one of the study’s authors and director of educational resources for Perkins’ Training and Educational Resources Program. “It was pretty remarkable to watch. From the beginning to the last session, there was a dramatic difference.”
Entitled “Socialization and Self-Determination in Different-Age Dyads of Students Who Are Deafblind,” the study appeared in the May-June 2016 issue of the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, the leading academic journal in the field of blindness and visual impairment.
The study is groundbreaking because very little research has been conducted about socialization strategies for children who are deafblind – especially those who have CHARGE syndrome, a complex genetic condition that causes deafblindness, health complications and other disabilities.
It can be difficult for children who are deafblind to develop social skills because they can’t mimic behavior they’ve seen or heard, Zatta noted. They also don’t get audio or visual cues to guide them through social interactions. Mastering social skills can be even more challenging for children with CHARGE syndrome, who often experience anxiety and may have poor emotional self-regulation.
In the study, three adolescents, ages 14-17, were paired with younger children, ages 6-10. The older children were instructed to bring toys or musical instruments to the younger children and play together. The sessions were observed by researchers and video recorded for later study.
After each interaction, researchers met with the adolescents to discuss how they could improve the interaction. For example, the teens figured out they could tap the younger children on the shoulder to get their attention, and should allow the youngsters to pick their favorite toys. Specific goals were established for the next encounter.
After six monthly sessions, the researchers found that the older students were communicating more effectively, showing more empathy to the younger students and evaluating their own behavior better.
The key to the teens’ progress, Zatta said, was the consistent, structured setting with the same playmates, the discussion afterward that allowed teens to learn from their mistakes and the presence of adults who could provide support and guidance.
“Hopefully it will provide teachers and professionals with ideas for how they might structure social interaction instruction, whether they use this model or create a model of their own,” Zatta said.
The study was conducted by Zatta and Sharon Stelzer, a teacher in Perkins’ Deafblind Program. The other researchers were Susan Bruce, a professor at Boston College, and Mary Gavin, a teacher at Bennet Hemenway Elementary School in Natick, Massachusetts.