Find out what you can about the child from their parents
Do they know their child’s eye condition and their level of vision (if they can see at all)? This may not be entirely clear with children who are very young. What are the implications of the child’s visual impairment for their day to day functioning?
How does the child react to strangers? Are there particular approaches to meeting and greeting them that are likely to be more successful than others?
Does the child have any other issues that may affect the way that they interact with people and engage with their environment (for example, do they have a developmental delay, a physical disability and/or a hearing impairment)?
Find out about the child’s musical experiences
Does the child already go to any early years music sessions?
Are there any sounds or music that the child really likes (or finds distressing)?
Do they have any favourite musical toys or instruments?
Find out about the family’s musical background
Do the child’s parent(s) or sibling(s) have any special musical interests?
What music do they tend to play at home?
Does anyone in the (extended) family play an instrument or sing?
Do they have any close family friends who have a particular musical skill who could be persuaded to spend some time with the child?
Meeting and greeting
Saying hello for the first time
Speak directly to the child when you first meet. If they can’t see you, try putting your hand gently on theirs or on their arm when you first say ‘hello’ to reinforce your presence and the fact you are communicating with them.
Give them plenty of time to respond and be sensitive to their reaction – whatever it is. The parents may be able to interpret what a young child means with a particular vocalisation or gesture.
The importance of touch
Making physical contact with young blind children is very important, but always ask parents’ permission first, and be sensitive to the child’s reaction to your touch.
A baby may well want to get used to the sound of your voice before they are comfortable in letting you pick them up, for example.
Always give them warning of what is about to happen. Remember, they may not be able to see your outstretched arms coming towards them and so anticipate what is about to occur, so: use your voice first, then a gentle touch, and then, if they seem relaxed, slowly lift them up.
Little blind children may well want to feel what you are like, and you should let them explore your face, hands, arms and so on, as appropriate. They won’t be able to do this as they get older, and they need to build up a model in their mind of what other people are like.
Talking in front of a child
Be sensitive in talking about a young child in their presence. Even if they don’t (fully) understand what you are saying, they may get the sense that they are the topic of conversation and be affected by the tone of your voice.
Sensitive matters may well be best dealt with out of earshot, but remember, blind children may well have more acute hearing than you!
Working with parents
Working as a team
It’s particularly important, when working with a young child with a disability, that parents and professionals work together as a team – you are partners in a shared enterprise.
Listen carefully to what parents say about their child and engage with their views and preferences.
The activities that practitioners suggest need to become owned by parents and should be do-able given the family’s circumstances (other siblings, life at home, work patterns, etc.).
Remember to involve any siblings too, engaging them in musical activities with their younger brother or sister, and taking into account their musical interests, abilities and needs.
Remember that parents may well still be coming to terms with having a child who has a disability. It is likely that they did not know that their new baby was going to be visually impaired, and they may be grieving for the able-bodied child ‘they never had’. They may be depressed or angry or have feelings of guilt. They may want to talk about these things a lot, or not at all.
Parents may find it hard to relate to their new offspring. Showing them simple musical activities – playing with their child through sound and touch – may help to rekindle intuitive parenting skills that have been suppressed. Musical interaction may give them permission – and the wherewithal – to play with their child for the first time. Playing with their child through sound and music may release or reinforce feelings of love.
Parents may already be worrying about what the future may hold for their child. Be a good listener, but don’t venture opinions that are beyond the remit of your role as a music practitioner working for The Amber Trust (such as whether the child should attend a mainstream or a special school in the future, for example). If necessary, point the parents to sources of impartial information and advice.
Remember, you may be one of the first professionals that parents have encountered who is not a clinician. They may have been overwhelmed with talk about their child’s medical deficits. You can help them to start rebuilding their view of their child as a small human being who has abilities, preferences and an evolving personality, as a little person who can do things – lots of things. Your message should be realistic but always positive.
Working in a child’s best interests
All professionals working with a child, including music practitioners, have an obligation to work in that child’s best interests. All decisions and actions that are made in relation to a child should be driven by that duty.
Young, disabled children are especially vulnerable and so extra care needs to be taken by all those working with them and caring for them to ensure that they are safe.
Parents should be present at all times during sessions, and you should never offer or be expected to act in loco parentis.
If you have concerns about a child’s welfare, speak in the first instance to your manager.
Because young blind children need a good deal of physical contact in order to relate to other people and to help them learn, it is particularly important that parents give you permission to touch, hold and cuddle their baby or very young child.
It is important to take into account a child’s wishes too, which may well be expressed non-verbally, through vocalisations, facial expressions or body language. Parents are likely to be able to interpret their child’s non-verbal communication strategies best.