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Taking account of individual learning styles

School years: MDVI

Mary LeeMary Lee and Lindi MacWilliam

Royal Blind School,

Canaan Lane Campus

45, Canaan Lane



0131 4463120




The notion of learning styles is well established in educational psychology, and there is a general belief that taking account of individual ways of learning will enhance the learning and teaching process. In early childhood education there has been renewed interest in the idea of schemas, that is, patterns of behaviour that determine the way individual children play and learn. These are biologically predetermined, but are also affected by environmental factors in the child’s early life.

This idea has particular relevance for those concerned with the care and education of children with visual impairment and multiple disabilities. Their physical, sensory and learning impairments are going to have a major effect on the way these children learn and will affect the learning style they adopt.

A group of children with MDVI will have widely varying personalities, likes and interests, but there will also be common factors that affect the way they learn and characterise the way they behave and interact with their environment.  In the first place, since these children are likely to be at an early level of development, they cannot learn through adult direction. Some will not yet be at the stage of learning through imitation. They will need to learn from their own active exploration – from doing rather than being done to.

Motivation is the key to all learning and in order to create a truly child centred approach to education we must take into account the factors that interest and motivate each individual, as it will be these that influence the way he or she learns. We can only discover what these elements are through skilled, ongoing observation.

Therefore, before we can effectively teach our children, we must learn from them. We must try and be open minded, and put aside our pre-conceived ideas about the way children learn. What might appear to us as random, purposeless activity could well have order and purpose and reflect the individual’s way of assimilating information from an experience.

By focusing, in this paper, on three specific areas of development, we hope to demonstrate some of the learning strategies the children are using to -


§         Play and explore

We will then consider the importance of key elements that promote learning in the wider environment.

Play and Exploration

We all have ideas of what play is, or should be, and we will want to put these ideas across to the children we are concerned with. However, the essence of play is that it is an activity in its own right, and that there is no ‘right way to play.’

In particular, a child with a visual impairment is going to use different strategies when it comes to exploring and finding out about the world, and we, as sighted people, must bear this in mind, and avoid directing play from a ’sighted’ point of view.

There are certain features that characterise the play of visually impaired children


§         Movement is likely to be important, that is, the child’s gross and fine motor movements, and ways of causing objects to move

We need to carefully observe the way individual children are exploring and discovering, so that we can then create opportunities and situations within the environment that will encourage the child to learn in the way that best suits him.

Video Illustrations

Interaction and Communication

In order to truly communicate with the children, we have to try to ‘enter their world’. We do this by tuning into what they are doing and closely observing the interactional style of the child that we are with.

The children use many, varied strategies to make contact with others. They may be using:


Many of our children are very sensitive to sound and will enjoy conversations with an adult by varying the pitch and intensity of their vocalisations. It is often their first experience of turn taking. They will also enjoy experimenting with banging, tapping, clapping and other body sounds.

Video Illustration

These will be very much an expression of the personality of the child. Some will love fast, free flow activity, while others prefer it to be slow and controlled. Most individuals will display a variety of movement styles.

Video Illustration

This can often be something that the children love to play with. They will experiment with fast and slow, and different rhythm patterns. They may use whole body movements such as rocking or swaying, or it may only be the smallest movement, but the child can be observed to be experimenting with actions such as tapping or twisting.

Video illustration

Pauses in an interaction can tell us much about what the young person is thinking and feeling.

Video illustration

Visually impaired children gain much of their information from the way that we touch them. We must remain aware of each child’s touch preferences; they may prefer it to be light or firm, depending on their mood. Many prefer not to be touched. We must also be aware of the messages we convey to the child through our touch.

Video illustration

Clearly observation is of crucial importance in our interactions with the children. We must watch, wait and follow, keeping an open mind and a willingness to go where the child takes us. We can train ourselves to be observant through knowledge of what we are looking for, as I have outlined, and also by being aware of the likely sequence of development within early interaction, from the child’s simple response, to turn taking and beyond. If the child is responded to appropriately then development will occur in a very natural way.

Nafstad and Rodbroe sum it up, as follows:

“If the interaction has the highest possible quality, then this quality will of itself create the possibility for subsequent interaction to become more complex and sophisticated…the interaction acts as the catalyst [for] the development of the child.”

Nafstad and Rodbroe (1999) Co-creating Communication

Learning to See

The visual development of a child who has a cerebral visual impairment will be inextricably linked with their understanding and ability to make sense of their environment. For them seeing does not happen easily but is part of a complex learning process. There are certain elements that are important to all aspects of learning and that appear to have particular relevance to the learning strategies used by this group of children-:


The following case study illustrates some of these strategies at work.

This is Moira (photo), a little girl with limited movement and who is just beginning to develop speech. She is an anxious little girl, very dependent on a familiar and predictable routine, but she is also very sociable and loves adult attention.

When Moira first entered the pre-school unit, her parents felt that she may have been aware of people moving around the room, but reported little other visual awareness. It soon became apparent that Moira was indeed aware of people’s movements, but that she was using additional auditory clues to 'cue' her into this. She was very alert to familiar sounds, such as doors opening and the footsteps and voices that preceded people coming into a room. She was able to follow them as they moved around, even at a distance, but at the same time she appeared oblivious to objects moving across her line of vision that were much closer to her.

At this time, if someone familiar was seated in front of Moira when she was in a play area, she appeared completely unaware of them until they spoke to her, at which point she would shout out their name and demand attention! However, she was  able to identify different people, without hearing their voices, as they came in and moved around a room.

The improvement in Moira’s functional vision went hand in hand with her general understanding, but proceeded in a way particular to her.

In the first place motivation was paramount, and in her case this came in the form of people, and the attention they gave her. Movement was also crucial in enabling her to become visually aware in the first place, and at a later stage it is likely that by focusing so much of her attention on the way people moved, she was actually using this knowledge to help her to identify and recognise them. This was reinforced by her inability to recognise or even be aware of someone sitting still, although quite close to her. Sound, in the form of different footsteps, and the direction they came from, also helped in identifying the person, and these auditory clues helped her to build up visual images of the different people.

In Moira's case two further elements seemed to play an especially crucial role in the development of her vision - routine and context. She learned that at a certain times of the day, particular people would come into the room, for example, someone coming in for an individual session after break or for a group session after lunch. She was able to use sound and movement clues and link these to a visual image of their face, because it was in context, and because it happened at regular times everyday (repetition). If a person came in unexpectedly she would have been unable to identify them. She seemed at this stage to have a visual image of the person that she was expecting, and was thus able to link them to the  'real thing'.

 As her understanding and visual ability developed she soon learned to do without the other clues, and was able to identify people and objects in any context, even extending this to pictures. However, in the early stages the elements discussed were of paramount importance in encouraging her use her vision and thus building up a visual memory and enabling her to make sense of what she was seeing.

I want to finish this section by showing you a short video that I think illustrates a very typical example of a young child learning to see.

(Talk over video)

The child is seen here playing in a “Little Room”. You can see he is focusing on and even reaching out to hit certain objects. The child has played in this area for a long time, and the objects are now familiar to him.

Here we are assessing the child’s reaction to lights. He appears uninterested apart from a brief reaction to a bright light when first turned on. He is concentrating on wiggling to lie flat.

We then introduced objects that were familiar and meaningful to him, from his play corner. Instantly there is a stilling and interest, and after some time for adjustment, he shows he is very visually aware of these objects, even tracking them.

The video points up the importance of familiarity, repetition and motivation - these objects have come to mean something to the child - lights by contrast are uninteresting. We must remain aware that it can take a long time for some children to respond to sensory stimulation and be sure that we provide the time they need.

Approaches to the Curriculum

When adopting a child centred approach to education, certain teaching methods stand out as being of major importance.


We must train ourselves to be observant, by giving ourselves a structure for our observations, based on knowledge of child development and the likely effect of visual impairment on this development. Video can be a very useful tool for such observation and it is important to be able to share our views amongst a team of people who know the child well.

Knowledge gained from our observations and from 1:1 movement interaction sessions must be carried over into the everyday environment.  Knowing a child’s preferred movement patterns will help us, for example, to

By watching out for and acknowledging the children’s communicative attempts, we can give them control over events in their lives and opportunities to make choices.

In order to enable the children to feel secure enough to make their own discoveries and to be able to make sense of their surroundings, the environment needs to be given careful consideration. There are certain key factors:

Which provides events throughout the day that are predictable and can be anticipated, thus giving the child a feeling that he can have some control over what happens to him.

Which provides a feeling of familiarity and security, and also the time and opportunity for the child to consolidate his learning. 

Ensures that the child does not experience sensory overload or feel out of control, because of the difficulty he may have with integrating sensory input.

Ensures that the child is given the time that he needs to respond and to make his contribution

We have outlined the importance of these factors in the early stages of visual development and we would argue that they are important in all areas of learning for children who are finding out about the world through exploration and experimentation, that is, for those children who are ‘learning by doing’. 


In this paper we have outlined how important it is to take account of each child’s individual learning style and how the motivation that this approach provides will encourage the child to develop his own learning. This will call for different skills from us, as teachers. We must be flexible and creative in our thinking, and seek to guide by providing a stimulating environment, rather than directly teaching, or instructing, in the accepted sense. Above all we must be observant and open minded enough to truly learn from the children. It is our belief that if we are willing and receptive we can learn as much from them as they can from us.

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