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Sensory difficulties can include sight and hearing difficulties – and a combination of both – plus auditory processing difficulties.

Visual impairment

Children with visual impairments may attend their local school with specialist support from a local authority service, go to a mainstream school that is specifically designated for blind and partially sighted pupils or go to a special school for blind pupils.

Those with a visual impairment and additional or complex needs will probably attend a special school.

Wherever pupils with a visual impairment are educated it is essential to provide a range of educational and social opportunities to enable them to participate on an equal basis with their fully sighted peers. Some will need minimal adaptations; others may have substantial needs.

‘It is the only school in the country that can offer 24 A level subjects taught by teachers qualified in visual impairment… Ebooks and Kindles enable partially sighted pupils to read a large variety of print; IT, with or without specialist speech synthesisers, plays a huge role; MP3 recordings developed by the science department have made revision material far more accessible. Raised maps on walls around the college have a dual purpose as handy navigation aids; there are tactile and Braille periodic tables; the famous ‘knitted intestine’ helps biology students learn anatomy.’ Extract from the GSG review of New College Worcester.

What's best for your child with VI?

When considering what is best for your own child, look for a school that is inclusive, positive and welcoming to all children, especially those with diverse or special needs.

Ideally seek a school where:

  • Parental support and input is welcomed and the school and all staff are keen to work as a team. A good school will listen to your child and take account of their wishes.
  • Teachers and those who will be working with your child have the training and support necessary to help them in their work with VI. The best schools will ensure training is ongoing.
  • The teacher is organised and plans work so that your child can follow the curriculum fully and isn't disadvantaged. This may include using a range of strategies and approaches and adapting materials in advance for use in class.
  • Responsibility for your child’s learning rests with the teacher and not with support assistants. Additional support and the ways in which it is to be supplied should be clearly defined and shared with all concerned.
  • Independence is encouraged and mechanisms are in place to ensure your child doesn't become overly dependent on one particular adult helper.

What makes a difference in the classroom for visually impaired children?

  • encouraging them to wear glasses, if they have them;
  • seating and grouping – this may apply particularly when a pupil is using additional technology, to ensure they are not separated from their peers;
  • using all pupils’ names and giving more verbal feedback to compensate for difficulty in seeing body language;
  • backing up visual information with verbal instructions or descriptions (eg reading out loud what is being written on the board);
  • providing the pupil with his or her own copy of information;
  • ensuring that resources are well organised with a consistent layout and clear routes, so that the pupil has independent access;
  • making sure that there is good lighting in work areas, with no glare. However, where pupils are photophobic (sensitive to light), they may be more comfortable in a shaded area of the room;
  • ensuring resources are carefully chosen with contrast, size and information through touch in mind;
  • using matt paper; shiny may cause glare;
  • using specialist equipment such as talking calculators, magnification aids and ICT;
  • giving short tasks rather than long ones as VI pupils tire more easily;
  • giving extra time to complete work.

With thanks to Elizabeth Clery for additional information.

Hearing Impairments

For educational purposes, pupils are regarded as having a hearing impairment if they require hearing aids, adaptations to their environment and/or particular teaching strategies in order to follow the curriculum.

Children with a hearing impairment range from those with a mild hearing loss to those who are profoundly deaf. Some pass the hearing screen tests in school, but are subsequently labelled lazy or disruptive because mild hearing loss has gone undetected. Deafness alone is not defined as a special educational need. Those with a significant loss may communicate through sign language such as  British Sign Language (BSL) instead of, or as well as, speech.

It isn't always easy to spot a child with a hearing impairment but indicators include:

  • limited attention span;
  • daydreaming;
  • slowness of responses;
  • breathing through the mouth
  • irritability.

They are likely to start talking late and have difficulties with speech sounds; fail to develop good listening and language processing skills; have a poor memory and basic vocabulary; have low attainments and poor motivation.

Schooling

Some pupils may prefer to be placed in a school with a specialist HI unit attached and specialist teachers, or in a specialist school for the deaf. These offer a range of services such as speech and language therapy, or specialist equipment such as group hearing aids.

There is a great divide between those who believe that deaf children can be taught to speak using auditory-oral approaches (assisted by hearing aids, Cochlear implants, radio aids etc) and be integrated into mainstream society, and those who believe they should be taught through sign language. What suits your child best may depend on the degree of hearing loss and how late they are in learning to talk.

‘The classrooms are light, bright and adorned with colourful and interesting displays. Only two corridors of classrooms, which creates a cosy feel. Specialist facilities include a library, science lab, ICT suite, audiology centre and a large state-of-the-art kitchen which provides opportunities for youngsters to cook for themselves. Focus very much on developing independence skills. Teachers sign and speak in all lessons, constantly encouraging the children and praising their efforts.’ Extract from GSG review of Exeter royal Academy for Deaf Education.

Ten things that make a difference in the classroom for children with a hearing impairment

  1. Sitting near to the teacher. 
  2. Keeping background noise to a minimum. 
  3. Use of small group teaching or individual tuition.
  4. Quiet areas for teaching.
  5. Limiting the time spent having to listen to the teacher.
  6. Ensuring the teacher’s face is always clearly visible.
  7. Maximising communication via visual aids.
  8. Writing key words on the board and providing notes for reference.
  9. Creating an acoustically treated environment.
  10. Letting other pupils repeat instructions.

Multi-Sensory Impairments (MSI)

Children with multi-sensory impairment have both visual and hearing difficulties and are sometimes referred to as deaf-blind. Many have additional disabilities or medical conditions, and most will attend special schools.

Because they cannot learn by seeing or hearing, and cannot use one sense to compensate for lack of the other, their experience is limited to the here and now. They need substantial extra help to learn and form relationships. They need approaches that make use of what sight and hearing they do have, as well as their other senses, such as touch.

But with the right support they can learn to make use of the senses they do possess and develop the confidence to form relationships, be curious and interested in the world around them.

Auditory Processing Difficulties (APD)

Is your child easily distracted? Do they find noisy environments upsetting? Is reading, writing and spelling a problem? Do they find it hard to follow conversations? Could they have an auditory processing difficulty (APD)?

Some children cannot make sense of what they hear, yet they do not have a hearing loss. Sounds, words and sentences take longer than expected to take shape into meaningful patterns so, when other babies are looking, listening and learning from what they see and hear, children with APD are surrounded by meaningless noises that can be frustrating and sometimes frightening.

Ten factors that may indicate an Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)

A child who has APD:

  1. Is easily distracted.
  2. Becomes unusually bothered by loud or sudden noises.
  3. Finds noisy environments upsetting.
  4. Behaves and performs better in quieter settings.
  5. Has difficulty following directions, whether simple or complicated.
  6. Encounters problems with some or all of: reading, spelling, writing or other speech/language.
  7. Finds abstract information difficult to interpret.
  8. Struggles with verbal maths problems.
  9. Is disorganised and forgetful.
  10. Has difficulty following conversations.
Many of these may also appear in other conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning difficulties and even depression. For this reason APD is often misdiagnosed.

Auditory processing difficulty arises because of the inability of the brain and ear to coordinate and so process information and work out the meaning of sounds. Symptoms of APD can range from mild to severe, and can take many different forms. Trained professionals, such as speech and language therapists and audiologists who specialise in APD, can determine if your child has a central auditory processing disorder.

What are the characteristics of APD?

  • Auditory figure-ground problems: the child is unable to pay attention because of noise in the background. Noisy, low-structured classrooms can be very frustrating to this child.
  • Auditory memory problems: a child has difficulty remembering information such as directions, lists or study materials. Memory problems can exist on an immediate basis - ‘I can’t remember it now’ - and/or on a deferred basis: ‘I can’t remember it when I need it for later’. 
  • Auditory discrimination problems: a child will have difficulty hearing the difference between sounds or words that are similar (coat/boat or ch/sh). This problem can affect their ability to follow directions, read, spell and write, among other skills.
  • Auditory attention problems: a child is unable to maintain focus and listen long enough to complete a task or requirement (eg listening to a lecture in school). Health, motivation and attitude can also affect attention, but among other factors a child with APD cannot (rather than will not) maintain attention.
  • Auditory cohesion problems: these relates to higher-level listening tasks. A child affected in this way will find it difficult to draw inferences from conversations, understand riddles or comprehend verbal maths problems - all of which require heightened auditory processing and language levels.

Help at school for children with APD

One of the most important things that both parents and teachers should do is to realise that APD is real. Symptoms and behaviour are not within the child’s control. 

How professionals can help

  • A speech and language therapist can help with drawing up a statement, and/or an individual education plan. 
  • School staff should keep in regular contact with the parents regarding their child’s progress.
  • The teacher should accept and help with whatever aids may assist in class, such as an assignment pad or a tape recorder. 
  • Sitting towards the front of the classroom facing away from the windows will help concentration and minimise distraction.

What parents can do to help

  • Reduce background noise.
  • Make sure your child is looking at you when you are speaking.
  • Use simple, expressive sentences.
  • Speak at a slightly slower rate and at a mildly increased volume.
  • Reinforce directions. Difficulty with following directions is possibly the single most common complaint. Ask your child to repeat the directions back to you aloud and to keep repeating them aloud (or to themselves) until the directions are completed. Make certain your child understands the directions and is not just repeating your words. For directions that are to be completed at a later time, writing notes, wearing a watch and maintaining a predictable routine in the household also help.
  • Help your child to be organised. 
  • Provide your child with a quiet study place. 
  • Ensure there are plenty of regular tasks and responsibilities; these help to build self-esteem.

Help your child to understand that they can be actively involved in giving themselves the best chances, such as moving to a quieter place when listening is necessary and applying the strategies taught in speech and language therapy.

A positive, realistic attitude and healthy self-esteem in a child with APD can work wonders.

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