Helping children with complex needs find their way around

Post date: 
Friday, 12 June 2015
Boy trails his hand along the wall

Kerry Pickering explains how objects of reference can be used to help children with complex needs find their way around at school and offers guidelines for special schools who’d like to introduce this approach

I first visited RNIB Pears Centre for Specialist Learning in 2010 when training to become a qualified teacher of visually impaired (QTVI) learners. I was instantly inspired by the creative teaching approaches and the pupils’ individual communication packages and decided to work at this school for children aged two to 19 with profound and multiple learning difficulties and a visual impairment.  
Initially I taught in an old school building while the impressive purpose-built school was completed. I was given the responsibility of making the new classrooms and learning areas easily identifiable to the pupils. 

Knowing where I am and what’s going to happen 

As a QTVI I know how important it is to enable students to find the different learning environments and identify the activities that might take place in each room. Pupils at RNIB Pears Centre use objects of reference to support their learning and cue them into activities. Objects of reference are a miniature object or texture that informs a visually impaired pupil about the activity they are about to do. For example, prior to snack time pupils are given a small cup to explore to let them know that they are about to have a drink and some food.

Finding my classroom 

I started by labelling every classroom and learning area with an environmental object of reference to give students cues. Some rooms were easier to label; for example we used a string of bells for the music room. But more generic classrooms had to be given abstract textures so that over time pupils would be able to distinguish between them. I also labelled every door with braille and Moon to promote literacy skills and added a Mac button to give students an audio cue that announced the room they had arrived at.
Example of an environmental object of reference: 
To promote the learning and independence of the pupils I designed a board for every classroom that featured all the environmental objects of reference. This meant staff could cue the students into the classroom that they were about to visit before they made their transition, and helped to reduce anxieties that often occurred as students were required to change learning environments.
An example of the set of environmental objects is displayed in every classroom and learning area. 
Every lesson, teaching staff give pupils the relevant environmental object of reference for the room that they are about to visit. Then when they arrive at that classroom they can easily locate the same object on the door of the classroom to confirm that they are at the correct place.  

Increasing independence and reducing anxiety

My research project for my Masters in Education then focused on the impact of the environmental objects of reference on the students’ ability to transition around the new school building and become more independent in locating learning areas around the school with reduced support or intervention from teaching staff.
The study revealed a significant reduction in pupils’ anxiety levels when moving around the school and that several pupils were able to find classrooms without support from staff.


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