ECC at Perkins: How to shine in social situations

Social interaction skills help students of all ages like Grace, Kevin and Michael connect with other people

A young girl passes a green ball to her classmate.

Social interaction skills are taught to Perkins students from a young age. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

June 28, 2016

In the Early Learning Center, students ages 3 to 6 sit side by side for “Circle Time.” Through interactive songs, they learn about shapes and concepts like left and right.

They also practice being social.

“If you’re visually impaired, you don’t always know there are others around you,” music therapist Jill Buchanan explains. “With the passing and greeting activities, we’re reinforcing social skills and reminding everyone that there are people on every side of them.”

During a song about sharing, Buchanan asks students to pass around a green ball. For a moment, Emily, 4, seems tempted to hold on. Then, at her teacher’s encouragement, she offers the toy to her classmate, Grace.

Social interaction is one of nine blindness-specific Expanded Core Curriculum skills taught at Perkins. It’s not just for youngsters – age-appropriate social skills are taught to older students, too. At teen hangout events, Perkins students practice engaging in conversation with sighted peers from area high schools. 

During a recent hangout, Secondary Program student Kevin, 17, chats with Regan, who attends a nearby high school. They talk about music – Kevin is a fan of the boy band One Direction – and what radio stations they enjoy.

“Have you listened to the new Zayn song?” Regan asks. “What did you think?”

These types of casual interactions are valuable learning experiences for Perkins students, who must navigate social situations without the benefit of visual cues. Strong social skills become even more important when students leave Perkins, says teacher Maurice Wilkey.

“The outside world will have interactions that they’ll have to deal with, realistically with people who are not visually impaired,” he says. “If they’re more comfortable in these settings, navigating through other things in life will be probably much easier for them.”

Wilkey keeps a low profile at the hangouts, letting students experience the occasional awkward silence that comes with meeting new people. Occasionally he’ll facilitate an introduction or suggest a topic that he knows a student is interested in.

“I try to kind of guide them into meeting different teens and maybe sharing something about themselves,” he says. “With some students it’s a little easier, some are a little more shy.”

After introducing himself to several sighted teens, Michael, 17, excuses himself to get some pizza, wandering away from the lawn games and conversation. Ten minutes later, Wilkey encourages him to mingle, suggesting he talk about his favorite oldies bands. It works – before long, a group has gathered around and Michael is talking up a storm.    

“He loves some of the same things as these (sighted) students,” Wilkey observes. “Once they can connect and find that commonality it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s not about me being visually impaired, it’s about me being a teen and sharing what I like and don’t like.’”

The Expanded Core Curriculum is designed specifically for students with visual impairment. It covers everything from using technology to independent living to socializing with peers – knowledge most sighted children acquire by observing everyday life. The ECC gives students who are blind a toolbox of crucial skills they need to succeed at school, in social situations, at home and on the job.