Innovative new “mock classroom” teaches learning skills, brings together children with visual impairments
For five-year-old Malik, summer was an exciting time of discovery. He did arts and crafts, learned to raise his hand, and perhaps most importantly, met kids who were just like him: They had visual impairments too.
Malik was one of five children attending a new “mock classroom” at the Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay Rehabilitation Centre in our CIUSSS, whose services are believed to be unique in Quebec. They give children and youths with vision loss a chance to learn the classroom skills they need before taking the big step into regular schools.
“Malik made pictures, cut out shapes and learned skills, but what mattered is that he spent time with other kids that resemble him,” says his mother, Josianne Tremblay. “It made him aware that he’s not alone. He was so happy.”
The classroom is part of an upgraded Pediatric Low-Vision Clinic that is being inaugurated in September at the MAB site of Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay. The clinic offers a cutting-edge pediatric optometry clinic and a specialized “dark room” for vision therapy, while the “mock classroom” marks an important innovation by preparing children and youths to enter regular schools, as most of them will.
“This place lets us help kids reach their full potential,” says Occupational Therapist Cheng Zeng. “It lets them learn what it’s like in a classroom environment, so they can prepare and be less anxious for school. It will be less intimidating for them later on.”
This past summer, Vision-Rehabilitation Therapist Sara Brennan worked with Malik and other pre-kindergarten children who ranged from partially sighted to functionally blind. She helped them use specialized magnifiers, binoculars and other visual aids, and taught them how to advocate for themselves when they start school.
“This place lets us help kids reach their full potential. It lets them learn what it’s like in a classroom environment, so they can prepare and be less anxious for school.”
“It prepares children for their future,” Ms. Brennan says. “They can enter school with more confidence and with the tools they’ll need for the rest of their lives.”
What struck Ms. Brennan was how much the children evolved over the five weeks of classes.
“At first, they were so reserved and quiet that it was like pulling teeth to get them to participate. By the end, conversation was free flowing and the kids were laughing and helping one another with activities. It was incredibly rewarding to see them connecting. They realized other children with visual impairments were learning the same things as they were. It’s an experience they’ll hold onto for a long time.”
Ms. Zeng is working with a teenager who partially lost his sight after a stroke and is working towards returning to school this fall; he’s learning skills such as how to choose the optimal place to sit in class and how to scan the room by making use of his remaining vision. The “mock classroom” even has a hallway locker to help familiarize him with this staple of high-school life.
“They realized other children with visual impairments were learning the same things as they were. It’s an experience they’ll hold onto for a long time.”
The upgrades at the MAB site, which were made possible thanks to the support of donours to the Habilitas Foundation, highlight the centre’s long-time role as a leader in aiding those with blindness or vision loss. The low-vision clinic also expands the center’s expertise and services in diagnosing and treating Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI). The brain-based disorder is a leading cause of visual impairment and remains underdiagnosed and poorly understood, says Stéphanie Desjardins, Program Manager in the Hearing and Vision Program for Children and Youth at Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay.
“We pride ourselves on our work with CVI because we know the impact that treatment can have on the quality of life of children,” Ms. Desjardins explains.
The improvements are making a difference for families such as Ms. Tremblay’s. She has two older children who also have vision loss and has been travelling from Laval for over 15 years to receive services at the MAB site in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. As a result, she’s witnessed the centre’s commitment to constantly upgrade its services. “They’re always evolving,” she says. The “mock classroom” is a testament to that commitment. By the end of Malik’s time in the classroom, he was excited to start kindergarten. “He was looking forward to it,” his mother says. “It was something positive for him, because he knew what it would be like.”