A career planning and employment resource for people who are blind or partially sighted

Knowledge and Skills for Primary Students

When children who are blind or partially sighted are old enough to attend primary school, they are typically enrolled in school programs with their sighted peers. It is in a primary school setting where students master their disability-specific skills such as, reading and writing with braille or optical devices, using assistive technology like screen readers or screen enlargement software on computers and computer devices, and traveling with a white cane or other mobility devices.

These alternative skills (skills developed as alternatives to doing and learning exclusively by sight) are the foundation upon which children with vision loss build their functional academic skills and integrate into general education programs.

At home, these skill sets are reinforced by parents, other family members, and significant others in the children’s lives. As children mature they are given more responsibilities and must meet higher expectations for proper social behaviour and participation in the larger community.

The six critical skill areas children need to master for career/life success are described in detail below. You will find information about special considerations for children who are blind or partially sighted under each area. For additional information and materials, please visit the Learning and Education Resources section.

Following complex instructions and solving problems

At the primary level, students are expected to follow more and more complex oral and written directions. These directions will be given to students by their general and special education instructors as well as related service personnel (orientation and mobility specialists, coaches, occupational or physiotherapists, etc.).

Students need to be actively involved in activities that require them to follow others’ directions, such as, ordering disability-specific materials they need from a variety of sources, including commercial vendors, instructional media centres, and public facilities like libraries. In addition to ordering supplies such as braille paper, dark-lined or raised line paper, students can complete book orders with supervision by their “teacher of students with visual impairments” also known as TVI (or other educators, in the absence of a TVI).

With regard to their efforts in day-to-day classroom activities, primary students should be expected to follow oral or written directions (in their preferred reading medium) to complete classroom assignments and homework. Likewise, at home and in the community, they should be expected to follow oral or written directions to complete household chores and daily tasks, such as, correspondence (letters, cards, e-mail messages etc.), albeit with access to either braille or other reading and writing media matched to their learning needs.

The second significant learning task for primary students in this content area is learning to solve problems with a minimum of external assistance. Students need to be encouraged to attempt to find things before asking for help from others. Well-intentioned adults and other students need to step back and let students find things that have fallen, not been put away, or been put away incorrectly.

Caring adults are certainly encouraged to demonstrate non-visual searching techniques and to discuss alternative solutions to problems that arise. Teaching students how to identify a problem, understand what’s causing the problem, define a solution and then set an action plan to resolve the problem, is the first step to problem resolution.

The next step is to step back and see how the student implements his or her action plan. Students need opportunities to do problem-solving in primary school and throughout their academic careers in preparation for employment and adult responsibilities.

Working individually and in a group

By the end of a student’s first or second year in a primary school setting, they should be doing their classwork without any prompting from adults. They should also be able to work un-assisted on classroom assignments using their adapted tools and materials (computers with speech and/or screen enlargement software, manual braille writer, electronic braille note taker, optical devices, dark felt-tipped pen and dark-lined paper, etc.).

Students should be comfortable enough with these adapted classroom tools that they can actively participate in and contribute to classroom academic projects, such as, group written reports or presentations related to their learning experiences.

Instructional staff may need to team up with students to do some early awareness training with the students’ sighted peers to ensure they know how to work cooperatively with someone blind or partially sighted. They should know how to describe directions using a compass or clock directions, for example, rather than saying something is “over there”, saying somone is standing at "6 o'clock".

They also need to learn the proper techniques for walking with or guiding a person who is blind. For more information on interacting and assisting someone who is blind or partially sighted visit Interacting with Individuals with Vision Loss.

However, after the initial awareness training, students should be able to communicate their needs, for accommodations or modifications to materials, to their peers. Outside of school settings, primary students need to be encouraged to participate actively in extracurricular activities along with their sighted peers.

Socializing appropriately with adults and peers

Students in primary settings need to be able to successfully engage with their peers in conversations, particularly during free time, such as, at meals and on the playground. Due to limited visual input, students may need verbal feedback from adults and older siblings about what their peers are doing when seated or playing together. They can tell them what they are wearing, what games they are playing on their electronic devices, and what pictures they are looking at, in order to help them integrate socially.

They may also need instruction on how to start and maintain conversations by asking questions of others, attending to their responses, and sharing ideas with them. They may benefit from role-playing social interactions with adults and then peer tutors or by staging interactions in the classroom in the guise of games or group activities. For example, they can play charades or act out problem-solving scenarios concerned with bullying or asking a friend out for lunch.

Primary students must also come to understand the rules of interacting with adults outside of their home environment. Examples of such interactions include raising one’s hand to be called on and not speaking out of turn in class, addressing adults more formally than friends or family members, and learning the importance of demonstrating appropriate social skills with adults. For instance, students should learn to say “Hello” to a cafeteria worker before placing an order and “Thank you” after receiving assistance.

In a nutshell, instructional personnel and others providing services in the school environment should expect these students to interact with others and, when they do so, to demonstrate socially responsible behaviour (such as covering their mouths when they sneeze or cough). If they don’t, the staff observing the misstep need to give the student verbal feedback about the problem behaviour in a caring, supportive manner.

To socialize appropriately with adults and peers, primary students need to develop strong communication skills:

  • Paying attention to others when they are speaking by orienting towards the speaker, occasionally nodding one’s head in affirmation, smiling, or frowning at appropriate comments, and doing nothing but listening when someone is speaking.
  • Responding appropriately when addressed by answering questions accurately, sharing topic-related information in a conversation, and waiting until the speaker has finished speaking before commenting. Young people who are blind or visually impaired may need to be told that their responses should not be longer than a minute or two unless they are asked to continue speaking. 
  • Staying on topic in conversations and not changing the focus to one’s self, to some irrelevant detail, or to an unrelated topic.

Children need to be taught these simple communication rules while they are in primary school settings so that they will be sought out by other students. If they are perceived by their peers as good communicators, they will be considered good candidates for friendship.

Assuming responsibilities at home and at school

Primary students who are blind or partially sighted learn to be responsible when they are held to the same rules and expectations for performance as their sighted peers. They must be taught to put their classroom materials and tools away in appropriate locations (classroom, cupboard, backpack, closet, or locker) that they can find independently. This may require tactual marking and a designated location that doesn’t vary over the course of the academic year to accommodate for students’ lack of functional vision.

They must also be expected to bring their assistive devices to class in working order (charged recorders and electronic note takers) along with their low vision devices, such as, eyeglasses, magnifiers, and telescopes. They may need to be shown tactually (hand-under-hand or hand-over-hand) how to efficiently use organizational tools, such as, backpacks or computer bags to keep their assistive devices safe and materials protected and easily accessible.

Likewise, they may benefit from instructions on how to work with basic school supplies or office tools, such as, ring binders, report sleeves, hole punches, or similar tools to organize class assignments and projects.

At home and school, primary students need to use calendars (hardcopy and/or electronic) to keep up with their assignments, projects, test dates, and appointments. There should be an expectation that they will keep their working areas tidy so that they can retrieve materials when asked to do so.

At home they can, and should, be helping with simple, age-appropriate household chores such as helping set the table or take out the trash, wash the car, feed household pets, gather dirty laundry and sort it, help fold linens and clothes, etc. At school, they may be expected to assist younger children with classroom assignments or homework and help the teachers like other students do (handing out supplies, picking up completed assignments, running messages to the principal’s office, etc.).

Recognizing different workers’ roles and the benefits of work

Primary students often go on field trips to visit local venues such as museums and parks, or to see community workers like firefighters and police officers. On field trips, or through reading assignments, primary students learn about these workers and the services they perform in order to identify whom to call on in the event of an emergency and where to go for assistance in the community.

Students who are blind or partially sighted gain the most information from these experiences when they can literally touch the tools and equipment workers use or get up very close to see what tasks they are performing. It will not be enough to simply read about community workers; such students need hands-on exposure to these workers and the environments in which they work.

By learning about the different work environments and the roles that adults perform in their jobs, children have an opportunity to gain an understanding of the benefits of work. Although children who are blind or partially sighted may understand the financial benefits of working because they’ll hear adults talking about salary issues, they may have difficulty learning about the more subtle reasons that people choose to work: developing friendships, enhancing talents or skills, gaining respect from others, etc.

If students don’t ask workers about these more nuanced benefits of work, adults providing supervision will want to model that behaviour for them by asking questions of the workers. You may want to use play activities or creative dramatics to underscore these nuances. Let children assume different workers’ roles (acting as a physician, lawyer, pilot, teacher, etc.), as this helps children develop their career awareness by applying what they’ve learned. 

Students need to be encouraged to talk about their career dreams and aspirations (fantasies about being a ballerina, football player, space explorer, etc.) with adults who will respond positively to their choices. Primary school settings are the time when children should be encouraged to dream; there will be plenty of time for reality checks later.

Children should also be encouraged to actively participate in class or in school plays that include different work-related roles with relevant costumes and actions. An outcome goal for students leaving primary school is that they should have a fairly comprehensive understanding of the array of choices available in the labour market.

Demonstrating mastery of basic academic skills

One of the most important outcomes of a primary education is the development of basic academic skills in reading, writing, calculating, listening, and speaking. Students will be expected to demonstrate grade-level literacy skills using their preferred media (braille, large print, recorded, or electronic formats) and optical devices.

If at all possible, they should be able to perform these tasks at rates comparable to their sighted peers. If they cannot read, write, and calculate at rates comparable to their sighted peers, intervention strategies for improvement over time need to be implemented so they will be able to compete for placement in secondary, post-secondary, and employment settings. 

One way to help children understand how their work compares to the work of their classmates is to make available their classmates’ work (anonymously) in an accessible format so that the children with vision loss can review it. This activity equates to what sighted children do when they “look over other children’s shoulders”, to see how they have performed on a test or what comments the teacher has shared on a completed assignment.