Developing Social Skills in Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

This webcast explains the importance of including social skills instruction when teaching children who are blind or visually impaired.

Dr. Sharon Sacks is widely known for her work in this area and this webcast provides an overview of the importance of including social skills instruction when teaching children who are blind or visually impaired. Sharon talks about how social skills naturally develop in children who are sighted through observation and incidental learning and the necessity of teaching these skills to children who are blind or visually impaired who do not acquire these skills incidentally. 

She describes the social interactions that begin at home and then demonstrates how the child’s social circles gradually widen as they get older. Finally, Sharon discusses the important role these skills play in a student’s success in the community and workplace. 

Read full transcript »

Presented by Sharon Sacks

Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes

Download the audio format (.mp3)


  1. Introduction
  2. Parent and Child: The First Social Interaction
  3. Widening the Social Circles
  4. Learning Social Skills in the Classroom
  5. Developing an Appropriate Self-Awareness
  6. Self-Advocacy as a Social Skill
  7. Social Skills and Satisfaction

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

SACKS: Well, so much of what we learn is through the visual sense. Almost 80% of what we acquire is through vision. And if you think about how we learn to interact and how we learn to engage socially, we do it through observation.

Developing Social Skills in Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired with Sharon Sacks. Very young children, babies for example, learn to smile by watching what their mothers do, and engaging with them. And that reciprocity back and forth, that joint attention that’s so critical with very young children is encountered through the visual sense.

And so for blind or visually impaired kids, learning those social skills need to be taught at a very early age. They need to be modeled, they need to be practiced.

And many individuals believe that the social world needs to be brought to the child who’s blind or visually impaired, that we can’t just assume that a child’s going to learn them — we have to help them learn those skills.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, two young girls who are visually impaired sit on the floor facing one another. Sitting behind each of the girls is a teacher. And the teachers prompt the girls to take turns passing a ball. (cheers) Oh, nice job.

SACKS: The research that I’ve done and others have done have demonstrated that social skills are really the foundation upon which other skills are built. And without a social presence, visually impaired students may encounter isolation, may encounter difficulty with personal relationships, may encounter difficulty with employment and independent living as adults.

So it’s really an essential part of what we teach students who are blind or visually impaired.


CHAPTER 2: Parent and Child – The First Social Interaction

SACKS: Families are the first teachers, and they’re probably the most important teachers. Families, siblings, relatives engaging the child in the family milieu is so important. It’s so easy, I think, for a child who is blind or visually impaired, or a child who has additional disabilities, to sort of be left alone to quiet… if they’re quiet, maybe they’re not engaged, to just kind of leave them be.

But what you want to do is to get them involved in all family activities. So for a baby, you want to get that child in the baby seat maybe up on the counter, talking to the child, getting that social proximity, getting the child to… if the child can’t see, but maybe getting that face-to-face contact through mommy-child games or family-child games, getting that child to look at the individual, getting that reciprocal relationship where the… when language begins.

It could be even a lot of goo-ing and cooing, but it’s a back and forth kind of game playing. Doing a lot of body awareness games. I talk about with very young child to do something like… I did this with my own kids.

A group of mother with visually impaired children are singing together.Clap the feet, and eat the toes, and tickle the tummy, and beep-beep the nose because you’re developing that body awareness, and you’re having fun with it. Getting the child to begin to play, to engage in play, to engage in real world experiences.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, a group of mothers with visually impaired children gather for play time.

The mothers sing songs and encourage the young children to interact. ♪ Hug with Riley, hug with Riley, ♪ ♪ hug with a joyful heart ♪

SACKS: Letting them play in the kitchen when they begin to develop motor skills or even if they don’t have that motor ability, giving them real objects to feel, to touch, to explore. Because by engaging in real-life experiences, the child is learning about their social world.

Family gatherings, the extended family is so critical. And I think siblings are wonderful teachers because siblings allow children to just be themselves. They allow the child to engage in rough and tumble play. And they don’t think about kind of having a hands-off attitude.

A visually impaired boy rolls a bowling ball down the alley with his sister. They treat the child who has a disability — whether it’s a visual impairment or another disability — just like another child. And they want that child to be part of the gang, if you will. So children who have siblings tend to be more risk-takers, I think.

And what we want for our children who are blind or visually impaired and have additional disabilities are really to be risk-takers, really to engage with the world around them. That’s really key.

NARRATOR: In a photograph, a boy who is visually impaired and wears thick glasses rolls a bowling ball down the alley. His two older sisters stand on either side of him.

SACKS: The other element I think that’s really critical is for families and professionals to have realistic expectations for their student who is blind or visually impaired. Sometimes those expectations can be way too low, and sometimes they can be way too high. And I think it’s striking that happy balance that is so important, and having those expectations throughout a child’s life.

NARRATOR: A graphic slide provides these summary points regarding the chapter: Parent & Child: The First Interaction.


CHAPTER 3: Widening the Social Circles

SACKS: The partnership between families, and teachers and professionals is really critical. I think the most successful relationships are those that have great respect for one another — that families… that professionals are listening to what families need, and what they really want for their children.

Accepting their cultural differences, accepting who they are, and then infusing the area of socialization, for example. It could be any area, but social skills, and how the impact of social skills might have on their child as the child moves into school programs.

The best environment to begin teaching social skills really begins in the home, and really begins in the child’s own community. In the home, taking the child to the grocery store, taking the child to many different activities in the child’s world.

A young boy sits in a sand box at a playground. As the child maybe becomes healthier or the child is able to move out into the world to begin engaging in playgroups with children who have similar disabilities or children who are sighted, depending on the child and the family situation.

NARRATOR: In a photograph, a young boy who is visually impaired sits in a sand box at a community playground. The boy, who wears glasses, is playing with a younger boy and an older girl who are sighted.

SACKS: Early on, giving the child chores around the house, whether it be just putting something in the trash can, or putting their toys away, or throwing their socks or clothes into a hamper for dirty clothes. Maybe taking their dishes to the sink.

So having those expectations are really, really critical and expectations for social behavior.

That it’s not okay to tantrum in the middle of a grocery store.

It’s not okay to throw your food on the floor.

It’s not okay to… as kids get older, to do inappropriate social behaviors and knowing where there’s a time and a place to do, you know, maybe inappropriate stuff, like poking your eyes, or rocking back and forth, or self-stimulatory behaviors, we call it.

Like, you know, masturbation, or picking your nose or things like that. Those kind of things can happen in private so teaching your child the difference between public and private, again so critical.

NARRATOR: A graphic slide provides these summary points regarding the chapter: Widening Social Circles.


CHAPTER 4: Learning Social Skills in the Classroom

SACKS: In an elementary school classroom, there are lots of opportunities for students who are visually impaired or students who have additional disabilities to engage with one another.

It’s critical that the teacher of the visually impaired or the orientation mobility specialist work closely with the general education classroom teacher.

The best environment is one in which students can have opportunities to be part of small group activities and where the classroom is structured in a way so the child knows where everything is in the classroom. Some classrooms change every two weeks or there’s lots of… there are lots of physical obstacles in the classroom, or it’s over-stimulating. And for many of our students, that’s not a good environment to access social opportunities.

So we want classrooms to be structured somewhat, we want teachers to… general education teachers to emphasize affective or character education within their classroom. We hope that they’re collaborative with the special education staff, that they have opportunities for children to work together, as I said, in small groups.

Cooperative learning activities within the classroom where the child who is blind or visually impaired can play a significant role. Not just sort of be a passive member of a group, but be an active member of the group.

Maybe being a scribe if they’re able to do that. Maybe being the one who can access technology. Maybe the one who can be the helper in a building activity. Maybe the student can be the… the leader of the group and facilitate the group activity.

It’s critical though that the teacher of the visually impaired or the general education classroom teacher set it up so that the child who is blind or visually impaired really engages with another… engages with the peers in the classroom environment or in that small group activity.

A boy place a number on the calendar grid. NARRATOR: In a video clip, a young boy who is blind is shown in an inclusive classroom.

The boy has been given the task of placing the date in the correct position on a calendar that is on the classroom wall.

The boy uses Braille to identify the correct number and then finds the appropriate position for the date on the raised calendar grid.

SACKS: If there’s not a level of training or a level of skill development in the area of social skills, particularly related to social interaction skills, there’s a greater chance or risk of social isolation as students become older, particularly.

You see the gap widening. There’s greater acceptance when kids are younger. Even though kids are aware of social differences during preschool and early elementary, you see that gap widening as children get older into intermediate middle school, and high school and into adulthood.

NARRATOR: A graphic slide provides these summary points regarding the chapter: Learning Social Skills in the Classroom.


CHAPTER 5: Developing an Appropriate Self-Awareness

SACKS: As children get older and they move into adolescence, it’s important to understand that that’s a rough time for individuals… for any individual. But it’s, I think, even rougher for students who have disabilities and those who have visual impairments.

People are trying to establish… these young people are trying to establish their own identities, and figuring out who they are as individuals and developing individual levels of competence in academics and maybe other talented areas like music or technology or… I don’t know, mechanics, whatever it might be.

And it’s really true for a student who is blind or visually impaired. The difference I think is that for a child or a young adult who is visually impaired or might have additional disabilities, they have to really put themselves out there.

Again, it gets back to that risk-taking of getting out in the environment, putting yourself out there, and trying really hard to engage and be part of that group. Or finding groups that the student might feel comfortable engaging with.

A blind boy plays an electronic keyboard in music class. NARRATOR: In a video clip, a young boy who is blind plays an electronic keyboard in music class. The boy, who wears sunglasses and an orange shirt, has an enthusiastic audience of classmates who are also visually impaired.

Some sing while another boy plays a drum. (music playing)

SACKS: But I do believe that there is a correlation between social isolation, and a sense of well-being, self-concept and self-esteem. So that if a student is able to engage with others and feels good about engaging with others, they’re going to feel more socially competent, they’re going to have better self-esteem or better self-concept about them.

They’re going to have… students are going to have an attitude of “I can do this, I’m included.”

One of the issues I think that students who are blind or visually impaired really face is sort of ego-centrism, that the world kind of revolves around me. And so I don’t need to move out and expel a lot of energy to develop those relationships. Nor do I see the need to develop those relationships.

So helping students to develop that understanding of why is it important to engage with other people? Why is it important to have good social etiquette? Why is it important to develop appropriate social behavior in various situations?

Because it all leads to inclusion in the world around us. And the hope is that all our students want to be part of the world, and want to be included, and want to feel needed and want to feel accepted.

NARRATOR: A graphic slide provides these summary points regarding the chapter: Developing an Appropriate Self-Awareness.


CHAPTER 6: Self-Advocacy as a Social Skill

SACKS: Self-advocacy skills are certainly a part of teaching students social skills. They… self-advocacy begins again early on, where the child is making choices and decisions for himself or herself. It can be as basic as a child choosing a cracker versus a cookie.

For maybe older children it might be choosing what they’re going to wear to go to school. You know, even though the outfit may not match, they’re advocating for themselves for what they need and what they like. So giving students choices, making decisions.

Often, we find with children who are blind or visually impaired, and particularly students who have additional disabilities, it’s easy for adults to do way too much for the child, to sort of allow the child to make those choices or those decisions on their own. And so what happens is we do a lot for them.

Without knowing it, we may tell the child to go into the classroom, put your things away in your cubby, sit down, put your lunch away. So instead, maybe we need to help the student develop a routine where they’re doing most of that or those activities on their own.

A blind boy navigates the hallway with his cane. NARRATOR: In a video clip, a boy who is blind navigates the hallway of an inclusive school using his cane as well as trailing his hand along the wall.

SACKS: Where maybe there’s a schedule board, and the student goes into the classroom and they know without the teacher even telling the student to put the backpack in the cubby, to go to the bathroom, to… maybe put their lunch in the refrigerator and then go sit down and look at what the next steps will be for the daily routine in the classroom.

For older students, particularly students who are in inclusive situations, it’s letting people know what they need or what they want. “I need to sit in the front because I can’t see very well.” “I need this read to me because I can’t read the menu at a distance.”

Giving students opportunities to explain their visual impairment or their other disabilities. “I can’t see very well, I was born prematurely,” or “I can’t see well, can you please read the menu to me?”

So all those opportunities give students a better understanding of who they are, and it helps them to be better self-advocates for themselves. And gives them greater opportunity to be successful and to feel better about themselves because they’re taking control of their lives.

NARRATOR: A graphic slide provides these summary points regarding the chapter: Self-Advocacy as a Social Skill.


CHAPTER 7: Social Skills and Satisfaction

SACKS: Well, the research shows that a person who… a student who is blind or visually impaired who has good social skills will, one, be accepted by their peers, be included with their peers, will have opportunities for employment and be successful at employment, will be able to live independently, will have a repertoire of friends and a good group of friends and be engaged with others, will feel good about themselves, will have control over their lives… over the life that they may want to lead. Will be able to make choices and have options in what they can do in their lives.

A teenage boy greets his co-worker. NARRATOR: In a video clip, we see a teenage boy who is multiply disabled at his job in a grocery store. The boy, who wears glasses and hearing aids, is shown exchanging an enthusiastic greeting with a co-worker.

SACKS: We’ve seen over and over again with students who may be blind or visually impaired who have good academic skills, but have less… but are less capable in the area of socialization having a more difficult time with employment.

Employers will tell you that they can train a person on the job, they can teach a person job-specific skills, but if they have poor social skills, if they’re not able to engage with their colleagues, if they’re not… if they don’t have the skills and knowledge about taking a break and kind of hanging out with their colleagues, if they’re not able to take the role or understand how to work with a supervisor, those are all social skills.

If they can’t do those things, they’re going to have a more difficult time being successfully employed. On the other hand, we’ve observed students who have maybe great difficulty with academic skills, but they’re excellent workers, and they just have a social presence about themselves.

Those students may have a range of disabilities, may have complex disabilities, but if they’re able to smile at their colleagues, and look at their colleagues, and they look sharp, and they just know how to take turns, they’re going to be very successful in a job placement because they have that presence about them. People want to be with them, they want to engage with them.

So social skills are really the foundation upon which other skill areas are built. And without good social skills, students and young adults are at greater risk for that social isolation later on in life.

NARRATOR: A graphic slide provides these summary points regarding the chapter: Social Skills and Satisfaction.

Developing Social Skills in Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired with Sharon Sacks.

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