Online Learning Challenges and How to Help Kids with Vision-Loss Thrive

Monday February 1, 2021

Children with vision loss from retinoblastoma need accommodations and extra support to access online learning and thrive in the virtual school world. Rb survivor and Orientation and Mobility Specialist, Jessica Givens, explores key challenges of online education, and the best ways to help children reach their potential in the virtual classroom. With additional contribution from Lori Banos, Rb Mom, WE C Hope Director, and Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI).

The following article was written based on experience with the US education system. The principles and processes of support they describe are similar throughout much of the world, although systems vary by country.  Ask your local education authority or child and family advocate for details of educational supports, assessment and application processes in your country.

A young teenage boy wearing glasses leans in towards a large computer screen on the desk in front of him. Text on the screen has been blurred for privacy. A smaller screen sits on his right, and an iPad can be seen to his right.

Rb survivor Ian is doing an 8th grade Social Studies assignment. He has an iPad with instructions to his left. The assignment had Ian looking back and forth between 3 different sources. He has one “good” eye; 20/60, and central vision only. He has a hard time finding his place on the page when using multiple sources. His VI teacher through the school is rand new this year and still learning. Since this photo was taken, she has guided Ian and his family through modifications to Ian’s large computer screen, and he has a much larger second screen.

This academic year continues very differently for teachers, students and families worldwide due to the COVID19 pandemic. The online learning experience may be particularly challenging for children with vision loss due to retinoblastoma, but they can still thrive and succeed in the virtual classroom with appropriate supports.

Below, I will look at considerations for the child’s learning space at home, how online learning works and the tools schools are using, how to establish supports and what to do when things aren’t working out, and how to reduce stress throughout this challenging time.

Your Child’s Learning Space

First it is important to assess your learning setting.  Does your student have a clear, well defined work space?  This space can be a table or a desk, or even an area on the floor. If your child is working with a computer, ensure the screen is raised to eye level to keep their spine straight, protecting their back and neck.  A floor-based workspace can incorporate a computer by raising it sufficiently with boxes, pillows etc. Many physical therapists advise that letting a child move around in their space can prevent fatigue.

This workspace should be comfortable, free from clutter and have lighting that is preferred by your child.  Some children like lots of light, while others need less. Discuss with your child the type of lighting they like to work in, and test various options if necessary to find the best solution.  A lamp with a flexible arm/neck can be purchased inexpensively and is also portable.

What Technology Challenges Should We Consider?

Technology is essential for virtual learning.  Each school is providing technology that they can afford and which best suits their learning platform.

Chromebooks are inexpensive and can run most Learning Management Systems. They are a primary choice for many schools, but are often difficult for students with vision loss.  If your child has a vision teacher, ask them about your child’s ability to use the assigned technology for a sustainable amount of time.

You can also assess your child’s performance directly. Listen to and watch them reading to you from the screen, and watch them search for and use the cursor.  Also, take note of headaches and / or your child excessively rubbing their eyes, as these may indicate computer eye strain.

For online learning to be effective, the team (school, parents, student, and providers) must consider each student’s individual needs. This should include available technology (distance meeting tools, student assistive technology and online learning websites), the student’s technology skills, materials available at home, the home workspace and any adult support required.

  • Technology for virtual learning may include distance meeting tools (i.e. Zoom, Google Meet, Face Time) and online learning websites.
  • Student assistive technology may include: Electronic note taker, screen reader, magnification, electronic magnifier, embosser, Perkins braillewriter, laptop, etc.
  • Materials may include: embossed Braille, electronic Braille, tactile graphics, print hard copy, electronic print.

The student’s technology skills and independence are core considerations when creating an effective online learning environment.  If the student cannot use technology independently, adult support will be required.

Students who use assistive technology such as screen readers or magnification software may be behind their peers in independent computer use, especially those in the younger grades.  Ask their vision professionals about their skills and how these deficits can be addressed by the educational team.  Vision teachers will sometimes provide one to one time for tasks that cannot be completed independently, but a modification should always be provided.

In addition, it will be vital to set up your child’s workspace with technology in mind.  For example, a teacher will be unable to fully evaluate progress of a student working on Braille and tactile skills if they cannot see the student’s hands on the tactile materials. It may be necessary to adjust the camera, or add an additional camera for complete view.

A mother and child work together with a laptop, books and papers. Both are wearing glasses.

Work closely with your child to assess for any accessibility issues, monitor their procress, and identify challenges with online learning as early as possible.

What are Learning Management Systems?

Many schools are using learning platforms to post and organize material and track student progress. These are called Learning Management Systems (LMS).  Make sure you know which platform your child is using, and ask for a parent log in and/or access to your child’s log in.

Some of these Learning Management Systems include:

  • Google Classroom
  • Microsoft Teams
  • Canvas
  • Edgenuity
  • Launch
  • Schoology

There are many others.  Search for tutorials on how these platforms are organized, to help you better understand their use. Ask the teacher specifically where they will post material and how often to expect it.  Talk with your child about what they are seeing on the screen to assess for any accessibility issues.  Ask questions like “tell me what you see”, rather than “do you see this?”

How Does Online Learning Work In Practice?

Online learning can be either synchronous or asynchronous.

Synchronous means the child is learning with a teacher.

Asynchronous means that material is posted on an LMS or via email and the student is expected to complete the work independently, without a teacher.

Globally, schools are instructing in the way that best suits their needs and complies with local and national pandemic measures. Some are in school full time, others are going to school a reduced number of days, while others still are completely virtual. Most US schools are allowing students to choose a virtual option if they are not comfortable attending school in person.

Schools are also sharing content in different ways. As well as using a LMS to share materials and track student progress, many also use a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for interactive education.  Video chat services enable students to call into the classroom for live instruction.  Some of these platforms are:

  • Zoom
  • Google Meet
  • Microsoft Teams
  • Webex

The video chat services allow for multiple participants, and interactive learning such as presenting material by sharing the teacher or student’s screen. Teachers also use the previously discussed LMS or email to disseminate information and assignments. Some teachers are also using websites that have games or interactive applications for learning.

It is important to understand how your child will react to being on a camera, and also the school’s policy about the camera being on or off.  Some students with vision loss will not want peers to see them needing to get up close to the screen in order to see content.  Children who dislike attention drawn to themselves or their disability may feel intense discomfort being “on show” on screen.  Others may have no issues with the format, or even find virtual learning to be an easier form of communication.

Talk with your child to understand what they see on the system and how they feel.  As with the LMS, assess for any accessibility issues by asking questions like “tell me what you see”, rather than “do you see this?”  Use open ended questions that invite your child to share their concerns about the system.  For example, “how do you feel about using the camera?” or “what do / don’t you like about the online classroom?”, rather than “do you like working online?”

The following video was created for parents and teachers with guidance on computer setup, lighting and tips for making online learning accessible to vision impaired children.

How Do I Communicate With Teachers to Set Things Up?

Your child’s teacher will send out parent emails with instructions.  Please read and follow them before asking a teacher for help.  If you still have questions after you’ve read the instructions, feel free to follow up with the teacher via email.

If your child has specific needs based on their visual diagnosis, there are many ways to share this information.  You may already have a document in place for your child’s educational needs. In the US, this is called an IEP or a 504 plan.

An IEP is managed by a special education teacher or administrator.  That teacher or administrator will give a copy of the IEP to the classroom teacher.  It is acceptable to check with all parties to make sure that has been done.

A 504 plan is a document that lists accommodations needed for academic success. This may or may not be managed by a special education teacher.  Sometimes a school counselor will be responsible for the document.  Classroom teachers are always responsible for implementing accommodations written in the document.  It is also acceptable to ask and make sure the teacher has a copy of the 504.

Please be familiar with what is written in these documents.  This will be helpful in pointing out when/if your child isn’t successful.

What Are the Signs That a Student Is Struggling With Online Learning?

Sometimes a student may have been performing well in the classroom setting, but now seems to struggle online.

Online learning can present many challenges. Below are some general indicators that online learning may be a struggle for your child, followed by indicators of more specific vision issues with online learning.

A struggling student may:

  • Avoid logging in
  • Complain about school
  • Complain about ailments such as tummy aches or sore throat or headaches
  • Avoid turning in work
  • Get angry about school or put their head down on the desk during learning

A student who is struggling to see may:

  • Get close to the screen
  • Complain that some portion or all of the screen is too small or blurry
  • Turn in assignments that are incomplete or have missing sections
  • Complain of headaches or eye pain, or neck / back pain

How Do I Raise Concerns When I See Things Aren’t Working?

If school is a struggle for your learner, talk to them to find out more and give reassurance. Always have open conversations with your child about what is difficult and where they aren’t having success.  It is also very important to ask them where they are having success. Finding some positives will encourage them to keep trying, and build self-esteem.  Focusing only on the negative may make it difficult for them to think there will be any solution to the problem, and can quickly destroy self-esteem and confidence.

Next, talk with the teacher.  If your child is experiencing headaches or eye strain, the solution may be as simple as taking more breaks from the screen. Ask the teacher if some paper and pencil activities can be incorporated in place of 100% computer-based activities.  Our eyes work harder to focus when looking at a computer screen, and in order to keep that focus we tend to blink less.  This causes both eye strain and dry eye.

To help reduce the risk of eye strain, encourage your child to practice the 20-20-20 rule when using a computer, tablet, TV or other screen-based device.  For every 20 minutes they spend looking at the screen, teach them to focus on something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.  Explain how it will help protect their eyes and reduce their discomfort.  This is recommended practice for anyone who works for a prolonged time with screens, not just those with vision loss.

Many schools are assigning students devices with 11-13” screens.  If the problem appears to be the size of the screen, your child may need a computer with a larger screen, and/or some of the accessibility features built into the computer.

The progression of problem solving should begin with your classroom teacher or special education teacher. If they cannot help, move on to the school counselor and administration.  Some schools have a director of specialized instruction or other administration for these issues.

If your learner is not seeing the entire screen (i.e., missing information, taking a long time to complete work, or not completing entire assignments) they may have visual-field loss.  You may need to involve your ophthalmologist to help figure out the details of this situation.

Attention to set-up and ergonomics of the workspace is particularly important for children with visual field loss. How can you maximize their comfort and place screens and resources within easy reach?  If a digital magnifier is needed for print resources, can your child use a single screen that toggles between the computer and CCTV?

This period of online learning may be an ideal time for your child to test out new solutions in private, away from the curiosity and judgement of fellow students.  Children often resist accommodations in the classroom because they don’t want to be “different”, from their peers, especially as they enter pre-teen and teenage years.  Working from home offers more freedom to experiment and accept help, and perhaps your child may grow to be confident and comfortable with the solutions before returning to the physical classroom.

A young boy reads a book using electronic glasses. The large black digital glasses sitting over his eyes are attached to a band fit snugly around his head.

A young Rb survivor demos the new eSight 4. He has monocular vision with radiation retinopathy in his remaining eye.

How Can We Cope With Stress While Learning From Home?

Many children, parents and teachers are feeling increased stress right now from broken routines, uncertainty and isolation.  Stress may be particularly high when a child has disabilities that already impede their development and access to education.  It is very important that both parents and students have healthy ways to cope with the stress through this experience – especially if there is no support for inclusion.

Talk with your child about the changes to their school routine and learning experience. Invite them to ask questions and voice any concerns they may have.  As parents, we can best facilitate our children’s learning by validating their issues.  Never feel like your student is making excuses. On the flip side, never let the rationale excuse your child from schoolwork.  Communicate as a family and as an educational team to find solutions for the problems your child encounters.

If your school does not come up with or support solutions, you may have to allow your learner to take screen breaks or make necessary accommodations without the school’s support. Sometimes this may mean a break in the school day, and an extended return to school work in the evenings.

Keep some stress relieving resources in your child’s workspace.  Non visual fidgets like clay, finger spinners, stress balls or infinity cubes may be helpful – talk with your child and observe their relaxed play to find out what will be most beneficial to them when they are working.  A t-stool or yoga ball to sit on may also relive stress.

Staying well hydrated and nourished is always important for a calm, focused mind. Ensure your child has eaten a balanced breakfast or lunch before settling into their morning or afternoon work sessions, and that they have a good supply of drinks throughout the day.  Remember that carbonated (fizzy) drinks, except sparkling water, increase thirst, primarily because of their caffeine and sugar content. So aim for water, flavored water or sugar-free cordial.

Be aware of your child’s stress arising from other changes beyond their schooling, and how this may impact their learning experience.  For example, feelings of isolation, worries about catching COVID-19 or of family members and friends becoming seriously ill.  Give them plenty of opportunity to share their concerns, and repeat information such as the things we can all do to stay safe and reduce transmission risk.

When children understand a situation, they become empowered, and less afraid of it. They are more likely to cooperate, and feel they are making a difference to help themselves, and other people, especially the people they love.

Sometimes we don’t have answers, and it’s better to tell your child “I don’t know”, than to give potentially incorrect or misleading information that may damage their trust later.  You can brainstorm together at those times to find ways to let go of the worries, even for a while, so they don’t become overwhelming.

A Worry Eater can help with this.  Your child can write or draw their worries and zip them up away in the Worry Eater’s mouth.  These cute plush friends are especially helpful for kids who aren’t comfortable talking about their worries.  WE C Hope Child Life Specialist, Morgan Livingstone, prepared a Worry Eaters guide to help parents support their child.  Learn more about Worry Eaters, and download the guide.

These activities for isolating with children may help keep your child entertained and engaged when you are confined to home for this extended time.  The 40 suggestions include novel ways to stay in touch, fun learning, crafting and creating, active play, and connecting with nature.  Keeping activities fresh away from school will help your child stay relaxed and motivated in their learning.

Doing all you can to reduce your own stress will also help to calm your child.  Children take their cues from the words, actions and emotions of the people they look up to.  In this uncertain time, it is especially important to invest in your own self-care to reduce the tension you carry in body and mind.

Try some of these 45 practical approaches to help calm both body and mind.  Identify a few strategies that appeal to you and practice them when you feel calm, so they become familiar and natural.  Emotional first aid isn’t easy, and we are more likely to use self-care tools when they are most needed if we have already practiced them, prepared, and have necessary supplies to hand.

Consider specifically how you can protect your mental health during isolation, from eating, exercising and sleeping well, to being fully present with your family, and organizing your home so you all have appropriate space.

Do not use a digital screen in a dark room, or have a window or artificial light directly behind the screen as this increases eye strain.  Add some ambient lighting above or to the side of your work space.

A Final Word…

COVID-19 has radically changed the way we work and learn, and our new virtual environments will continue to exist in some form even after the pandemic ends.  The experience undoubtedly throws up many challenges for vision impaired learners, but also many opportunities for growth.

Open conversation with your child and their teachers is vital to establish and maintain a healthy working environment in which they can reach their potential.  Investing in self-care should be a priority to support wellbeing for you and your child throughout this tumultuous time.

Please understand that if your child’s school is working remotely, all their teachers and support providers will be feeling increased stress as they continually learn, adapt and work hard to deliver quality education.  Please be patient with them.  Stay in close contact, with regular feedback about your child’s progress and challenges.

If your child is struggling, talk with the relevant teachers and support providers to identify issues and potential solutions. Be kind to yourself and others working with your child, and take it one step at a time.  Together, you can help your child thrive in this new world of online learning.

About the Author

Jessica Givens lives in St Louis, MO with her husband and three boys.  Jessica has worked for 22 years in the public school system as an Orientation and Mobility Specialist. She is a retinoblastoma survivor as are her two youngest sons.

Jessica Givens
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