University of Edinburgh

Promoting social inclusion of pupils with visual impairment in
mainstream schools in Scotland

Chapter 6 Social skills training: examples from the Netherlands and Scotland

In this chapter we will describe two initiatives which are particularly aimed towards developing the social skills of visually impaired children and young people. It is important to stress, however, that what follows are descriptions of these projects, not an evaluation of these initiatives. We will first describe our study visit and observations in the Netherlands (at the SENSIS Centre), and then describe the "Kids Together Project’ in Scotland.

Visit to SENSIS Centre

In October 2001 we visited SENSIS, a centre in the south of the Netherlands. There are 3 such centres in the Netherlands, each covering a geographical area (Grave is for the South). Teachers of the visually impaired come here for short courses throughout their career. Families, children and young people with VI (0-20 years) also come regularly to the centre or at least once a year and may continue to visit throughout their lives. The school at the centre used to have 400 pupils, but now has 40 . The area covered by this centre is thought to have about 2,000 pupils with VI and has 80 teachers of the visually impaired.

The following information was given to us during several interviews and workshop sessions with staff in the centre. We also spent some time observing a social skills class being held in the centre, and talking to some of the participants.

Our visit was hosted by a psychologist who began by describing the importance of social skills which she defined as ‘those abilities which make interaction with other people easier.’ She felt that blind and visually impaired pupils needed more training, more strategies and more explanation than others, as it is not always possible to compensate if you cannot see the visual clues around you. Examples such as asking, listening, giving feedback, saying no and introducing yourself are important and maybe more difficult for those with VI because of problems with eye contact and insufficient vision to allow for imitation and therefore they may be exposed to negative experiences. This can result in tensions between attracting attention and being inconspicuous. There are also additional social skills that are useful for people with VI - such as asking for help, rejecting help, reacting to remarks and starting a conversation - which need to be addressed.

The psychologist felt that the motivation for learning social skills is stronger for those who are blind or visually impaired in mainstream schools than for those who remain in specialist provision. Although in Holland there is the equivalent of PSD (personal and social development) in some schools this is not considered sufficient to ensure that pupils who are blind or visually impaired develop the social skills they need. In schools in the Netherlands there are Guidance teachers whose role it is to empower pupils to do things for themselves, often through buddy type systems. But it is acknowledged that there is a possible tension in schools between the balance of developing cognitive and social skill learning.

The Goldstein method is a ‘structured learning therapy’ with an emphasis on acquiring social skills. Participants identify social skills which they would like to improve and videos are used to show appropriate social behaviour (see Appendix III for a brief outline). The adaptations made at the Sensis Centre for use with young people and adults with VI would appear to be minimal. There would be a smaller number of people in a group (5-8 participants) and there would be a focus on situations particularly relevant to people with a visual impairment (e.g. refusing help). More verbal clues and descriptions would be given. Videos of blind or visually impaired people would be used as role models. There would be two workers per group. Other changes would be that the identification of social skills needed would be done by the trainer talking to each individual before the group started.

There would be 4 weekly meetings to learn one skill, and training would be over 3-15 meetings. For those who may be blind or visually impaired different social skills would be addressed, such as:

  • Introducing yourself
  • Listening
  • Asking questions
  • Starting a conversation
  • Asking for help
  • Refusing help
  • Being criticised
  • Criticising
  • How to deal with feelings.

The motivation factor is very important and it was suggested that social skills training using this method (rather than more flexible indirect methods) works best when young people are of an age and maturity to be able to identify what it is they need (and suitable social situations in which they would use such a skill). The five points highlighted above would also be slightly modified to include stages such as turning to face the person, extending your hand as you introduce yourself, etc.

Unfortunately little information was given about work with younger children. It was suggested that sessions would be much shorter (less than an hour); that there would be more attention given to the group and the feelings within the group; and that the social skills would often be part of some other (usually practical) activity. The motivation would then come from being part of that group and participating in that activity. We were briefly shown a game (rather like snakes and ladders) where cards would be picked up outlining a particular situation with several different options for how to react and the player was asked to choose the appropriate reaction.

This was a small class of 4 students (3 male and 1 female) with their class teacher. None of the students were blind. Two television screens were used to play the video of a situation where a student with a visual impairment was on work experience and a colleague was celebrating the birth of a son. Two screens were necessary so that all students could sit very close to the screen. The first video was of the student not participating in the celebrations. The students were asked to describe what happened and what they thought could improve things. They appeared confident and at ease doing this and came up with many good ideas of what would help make the situation better. The second video was shown where the student did participate . The students were asked to role play the first video and then asked to role play the second video and positive feedback was given by the teacher throughout this.

The students appeared comfortable and familiar with this structure and they were able to ‘ad lib’ and elaborate on the second video (for example after going through the physical aspects of the social skills such as rising from your chair to greet someone, they introduced extra dialogue such as ‘what is the baby’s name’). They also gave each other clues/instructions as to what to do and when. The lesson continued over coffee and biscuits with the teacher reinforcing the social skills learnt. After less than an hour the lesson ended and the class was dismissed.

Later that day we briefly discussed the social skills group with two of the participants, both young men aged 17 years. Both made the comment that the age gap of those participating in the group was too large and they thought it would be better if they were all of a similar age. They both stressed the importance of learning social skills, but then remarked that learning social skills was one thing, but they needed and wanted the opportunity to ‘try them out’ in situations where they would be with others of their age who were not visually impaired. As weekly boarders they were not in Grave at weekends, and when they went home at weekends they said they often spent the time alone/with family.

Sharing the Vision Project

This project was the result of collaboration between VISSCC (Visual Impairment Support Service for Children in the Community) which encompasses three neighbouring education authorities (Clackmannan, Falkirk and Stirling), and the RNIB (who funded the initiative). An article describing the project was published in Visability, March 2002.

VISSCC is a multi disciplinary team consisting of a community child health doctor, orthoptists, teachers of visually impaired children and liaison health visitors. VISSCC is jointly funded by the local education authorities and health trusts.

'Kids Together Club'

We had two meetings with staff involved in the initiative and had access to a video made during the project. The first meeting was with two of the teachers involved, and occurred immediately after the project had ended. We also attended a VISSCC meeting early this year, when the evaluation of the project was being discussed.

The project aimed to establish peer support groups of visually impaired children and young persons from the three local authorities (as above), which are part of the Forth Valley Health board. A successful pilot programme, led to the establishment of a group of 14 primary aged children, 5 teachers, 1 support for learning auxiliary and some parental support, who met fortnightly during the autumn term 2001.

It was recognised that children with visual impairment in mainstream settings, belong to a low incidence group, and do not have the opportunity to meet with other similar children or spend time working on general life skills. It was therefore felt that without such support visually impaired children can lose confidence and restrict their own activities. The project aims were to encourage the children to:

  • Meet and make friends with other visually impaired children
  • Discuss VI issues
  • Work on life skills from an equal baseline and develop these skills
  • Be more confident and able within their own inclusive settings
  • Raise their self esteem

During one of the sessions a ‘parents day’ was held where parents and invited professionals were able to meet each other and speak informally. The professionals were also able to participate in joint observational assessments during the activities. We were shown an informal video of the project which shows the group engaging in many different activities and having a great deal of fun!

A couple of teething problems have been identified such as the need for the project to have a ‘home’ so that resources did not have to be packed up and stored away after every session, and more ancillary staff, but overall the comments by the children, their parents, and their class teachers were very positive, and it is hoped to run the programme again soon.