Gloria: Going Beyond "The Structure"
I was recently reminded that too much "structure" around children who are deaf-blind may prevent them from growing further in their capabilities. This can sound counter-intuitive because in the field of deaf-blindness we recommend all kinds of strategies that will give "structure" to the student who is deaf-blind.
What do I mean by "structure"? I mean routines and known or specific tasks that give meaning to a student's world. These take many forms. Devices (e.g., calendar system), people (e.g., consistent adult working with student), and strategies (consistency and repetition) that allow the child to have a way to organize their daily living, and that can help them understand the world around them and respond accordingly. This "structure" can also provide ease to the child as it provides a more predictable environment. And this is all good, but what happens if it becomes a limitation for the student?
I met two teenagers, a boy and a girl, both with good functional vision. The girl had enough hearing that she was able to speak through short sentences. The boy had a severe hearing loss and communicated through Sign Language. Also, his communication was mainly through short sentences. Both could read and write and do their daily living skills independently.
The girl was very compliant and obeyed everything that her parent told her to do. In her case, the parent seemed to give her the "structure" by telling her what she needed to do. From the outside this seems to be all right. It tells you that the girl is a great kid, easy going, has enough language to understand verbal commands and that she is independent because once her mother tells her what to do she does it. Also, the girl is able to speak and respond back to the parent.
However, during my visit she did not demonstrate that she could make decisions, begin a conversation without being asked a question, or say what she wanted to do. When asked about themes that should be hers ("what do you like about school?"), her answers were hesitant and doubtful ("I don't know"). Despite her competence she lacked the social mechanisms to be truly independent.
The boy had a written schedule and he followed it with great precision. An adult wrote the schedule with him, and then when he finished every activity he crossed off that activity and went on to the next one. At some moment the adult working with him made a mistake and skipped an activity, and the boy noticed the mistake and would not move to the next activity until the previous activity was done.
From the outside this also looks good. This boy demonstrates that he is smart: he reads a schedule, follows it and has good memory. When he noticed the mistake he refused to continue by staying with the order of the schedule. He did everything that was in the schedule, but could not respond to the change of ordering with anything other than refusal.
This boy had far more potential than what following the schedule punctiliously affords him, but his world has turned into a routine guided by a schedule and by the activities within this schedule.
These are two teenagers with great language skills who seemed to be "boxed" in "the structure." The girl needed to follow the parent's instructions, the boy, the schedule. I'm sure this "structure" allowed these teenagers to accomplish much of what they are able to do in the present moment. But the question is, is this where we want them to stay?
So I want to offer specific strategies that can be used to promote more independent thinking:
1) have the opportunity to make choices throughout the day,
2) have an environment that slows down so the student has the time to process, think and express him/herself,
3) have spaces during the day that are not structured,
4) promote creative thinking by writing short stories with pictures and/or text in which the student takes the story forward,
5) leave one activity that is not pre-set in the calendar system so when the time comes for that activity, the student needs to make the decision of what he/she wants to do.
What do you think about this idea of "going beyond the structure?" Are there any strategies that you use to help your child or student think and express himself?
Topic: Gloria: Going Beyond "The Structure"
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