Compensatory and Academic Skills

What Are Compensatory Skills?

Disability-specific compensatory skills refer to using strategies, techniques, and adapted materials that students with blindness or low vision need to access the general education and common core curricula. These include braille reading and writing methods, regular print, regular print with optical devices, large print, and voice output technology.

Students who are blind or low vision may use one or more of these literacy media depending on the demands of a specific task or situation. Compensatory skill areas also include listening and speaking, study and organization, concept development, and spatial understanding.

Why Teach Compensatory Skills as a Specific Area?

The law has clarified that each child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) must (1) support the child’s involvement and progress in the general curriculum to the fullest extent possible alongside non-disabled peers and (2) address unique needs arising out of the child’s disability or disabilities.

Arguably, a student who is blind or low vision will be unable to make progress in the general curriculum if they cannot access the information in that curriculum. In addition, if that student does not have the same level of organization or study skills as academic peers without disabilities, they will have difficulty learning, recalling, and locating information.

Finally, students with blindness or low vision must learn effective listening skills and receive direct instruction in concepts in order to address the unique needs arising from their inability to casually observe the larger environment.

How Do Teachers of Students with Visual Impairments (TVIs) Approach Instruction?

Students with blindness or low vision cannot access the same books and instructional materials provided to fully-sighted children in the classroom. Therefore, TVIs assess their students’ learning strengths and needs to determine which learning media are the most appropriate and efficient for each. Children with blindness or low vision must be able to effectively use a variety of strategies and tools to access information, including visual, tactile, and auditory materials. Otherwise, these students will be unable to access the core curriculum and make academic progress.

Organization

Many of the techniques and strategies addressed in compensatory skills are typically learned by children without visual disabilities through casual observation or incidental learning.

In the area of organization skills, for example, a child who is fully sighted might observe classmates writing down assignments in a planner or placing papers into a three-ring binder. The student with blindness or low vision might not see these activities, effectively missing the opportunity to learn specific organization techniques. Therefore, children with visual disabilities need direct instruction in the same types of skills modeled by teachers that are seen, copied, and learned by fully-sighted classmates.

When children with blindness or low vision are not taught the organization skills best suited for their individual learning strengths and needs, they will have difficulty keeping track of work; resulting in misplaced, late, and incomplete class assignments.

Organization is especially important for people who are unable to casually look around and quickly find objects. Instead, materials must be organized consistently, allowing the student with blindness or low vision to locate desired items easily.

Again, because these students cannot casually observe how to organize their belongings and their schedules, they must receive specific instruction in effective organization strategies.

Study Skills

Study skills represent another area of the expanded core curriculum that must be addressed with students who are blind and low vision. Many note-taking and studying activities, such as highlighting, underlining, and outlining, are very visual and, thus difficult for these students to access effectively. Therefore, they must learn strategies for taking notes in their own learning media.

TVIs also teach these students about the visual organization of textbooks: titles, chapter and section headings, sidebars, tables of contents, and indexes. This knowledge empowers students to quickly locate desired information and work at a pace competitive with peers.

Sensory Efficiency

There is a common misconception that students who are blind or low vision automatically have superior hearing and listening skills compared to fully sighted peers. This is not always true. Just like any skill, students with visual disabilities must learn to use auditory efficiency skills effectively. Beginning in early childhood, these children learn to associate sounds with meaning. Auditory efficiency skills continue to develop as older children use active and critical listening in classrooms.

Listening skills are especially important for students who are blind or low vision, providing them with access to computers and distance learning via screen-reading software and audio descriptions of visual information presented in class.

In addition to developing efficient listening skills, children with blindness or low vision may benefit from learning visual efficiency skills to maximize the use of their remaining vision. This includes techniques such as eccentric viewing, blur interpretation, and optical devices.

Finally, children with blindness or low vision benefit from refining their use of touch to gain access to environmental information. By honing tactile and sensitivity, they improve their braille reading skills and ability to distinguish subtle texture changes and differences. Practice with tactile efficiency enhances students’ ability to explore and interpret the environment.

Concept Development

Another crucial component of compensatory skills in the ECC is concept development. Full-sighted students tend to learn from whole to part, meaning that they can see the big picture and then examine details. However, many students who are blind or low vision must learn from part-to-whole, as they only experience discrete parts of an object, one at a time, and then piece those parts together. Without instruction in appropriate systematic search strategies, random or unsystematic exploration results in an incomplete understanding of concepts.

Objects that are impossible to touch, i.e. cellular structures, fire, or space must also be taught to children with visual impairments in safe and accessible ways. For example, students who are fully sighted typically learn about cellular structures and anatomy by using microscopes and looking at textbook illustrations. However, unless these concepts are explained using real objects, concrete models, or tactile graphics, a student who is blind or low vision will have difficulty accessing this information. Therefore, these students must learn about concepts through direct experiences, real objects, models, tactile graphics, reading, and discussion using an organized process of systematic exploration.

Spatial Understanding

Spatial understanding refers to basic concepts such as on, behind, underneath, in, and out. This is another important instructional area for students who are blind or low vision. These concepts should be taught early to children with visual disabilities to provide critical foundational knowledge for later experiences. Students who have a solid understanding of spatial concepts and how objects in the environment are related to their own bodies will be able to follow directions and travel independently in home, school, and playground environments. For older students, these foundational concepts empower safe and independent community travel.

Spatial understanding is also critical for classroom tasks in all areas of the common core curricula, from reading fundamentals of left to right and top to bottom, to math and science use of spatial and linear equations, arrays, grids, geometry, tables, graphs, and charts used to display data. In addition, geography, social studies, and history require the use of maps, timelines, and graphical displays of information.

How Can We Support Instruction in Compensatory Skills in Schools?

Because of the unique ways students with visual disabilities learn concepts and skills, their instruction must be designed and implemented by fully qualified professionals who are knowledgeable about disability-specific strategies and curriculum adaptations for these students. Therefore, TVIs must receive thorough training in using appropriate assessments, identifying effective learning media, and providing direct instruction in disability-specific compensatory skills.

TVIs also need to receive ongoing training in new materials and best practices in all instructional areas. Finally, in order for these students to learn to use compensatory skills effectively and receive the same education as their sighted peers, TVI caseloads and district vision programs must allow sufficient time and resources to provide appropriate and meaningful instruction.

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