The new school year has just begun and there is no doubt that this school year will be difficult and unusual for teachers, parents, and students. Although school may be different, it can still be fun and exciting! Whether your child will be learning remotely, attending school in person, or participating in a hybrid model, the New England Consortium on Deafblindness has some helpful tips to guide you through this new school year.
Adapting to remote learning
Provide a consistent learning environment
As we have written about in the past, consistency is integral to the success of learners with combined vision and hearing loss. Although your child may be engaging in remote learning this year, you can still provide your child with the environmental consistency they receive at school. A great way to implement this is by dedicating a corner of one room in your house to school by placing a small table or desk there. If your child is in a wheelchair, you can place their chair in one consistent spot while they are engaging in remote learning. You can even consider using a trifold board on his or her tray or table to minimize distractions.
Schedule virtual learning strategically
There are some positive aspects to remote learning, including the increased flexibility when it comes to school for children with disabilities. If possible, request to hold your child’s virtual sessions at a time when they are most alert in order to maximize the time in which your child is engaged in learning activities. For example, if your child typically has difficult mornings, it may be best to schedule virtual learning in the afternoons and fun activities that they are more likely to engage in (i.e. music, art) during the mornings. Your child may also need highly structured virtual learning and break times, such as 15 minutes learning and 5 minutes of a break throughout all sessions. Additionally, start the learning sessions out short and gradually increase the amount of time your child is expected to be engaged in virtual learning.
Practice using Zoom with family and friends
Your child may have been using Zoom or FaceTime recently to communicate with friends and family members, but they may have also been using their iPad for leisure activities such as online games. Understandably, it may be hard for children to focus on learning after using technology for fun activities or to focus on a Zoom meeting for an extended period of time. To prepare your child for remote learning, consider scheduling Zoom calls with your child’s family and friends. During the call, think about giving them one or two simple tasks, such as communicating something about their weekend, or asking their communication partner a question. This will help them get ready for the demands of school!
Considerations for screen time and visual impairments
Every child with a visual impairment is different, and therefore, every child may require different modifications to access screens. For really young children, the iPad may work better than a larger laptop or desktop screen, as it minimizes the area they need to focus on. For children who have functional vision and can attend to a computer screen, lighting may be an issue. You may need to adjust the illumination on the screen to be lighter or darker. In addition to screen size and brightness, the teacher or provider leading the virtual session should have a clutter free background to reduce the visual demands on your child. If they do not have a blank wall at home, they can use a plain virtual background.
Finally, it may be difficult for children with combined vision and hearing loss to attend to auditory and visual stimuli simultaneously. The provider can consider staggering visual and auditory cues to minimize the amount of input occurring at the same time.
Create learning boundaries
Much like other children with disabilities, your child with a combined sensory loss may require a substantial amount of your help during learning activities. The demands you place on your child during learning activities may be very different from what you expect of them during a typical day at home. In order to provide your child with information about your expectations, it may be helpful to wear a specific color shirt, bracelet or watch, or tactile symbol during learning activities. Doing so will help to separate “school parent” from “home parent.” You may additionally consider a bell or tactile symbol that signals the beginning and end of a virtual learning session.
This concept can be carried across different aspects of virtual learning as well. For example, your child may use their iPad for leisure activities (i.e., games) and learning activities. If you have two cases in two different colors or textures, you can consider dedicating one case to leisure and one case to learning.
Getting back to school, safely
Practice wearing masks
For young children in particular, getting used to wearing a face mask all day will be difficult. In order to prepare your child for the expectations at school, it may be a good idea to practice wearing masks throughout the day at home. Consider slowly increasing the amount of time your child is expected to wear a mask (excluding meal times) until your child is able to wear a mask for the duration of the school day. If your child will be eating snacks or lunch at school, practice teaching them how to properly remove and store their mask when they are not required to wear it.
Talk to your child about the new year
Due to the substantial amount of changes to the classroom environment this year, it is incredibly important that we talk to children with disabilities and dual-sensory loss about what the new school year will be like. While your child may already know about COVID-19, it is important that you communicate how that will impact school with them.
Practice driving to school
Finally, a practice drive by school wearing a mask may make your child feel more comfortable about the school year, especially if they are going to a new school!