Vision Impairment and Social Skills

Author: Dolly Bhargava, M.Spec.Ed.

Whether or not they have vision impairment, all children must engage in appropriate social interactions to ensure appropriate social, emotional, cognitive and academic development.  However, social skills are more difficult for a student with vision impairment than for peers without vision impairment. It is not sufficient for students with vision impairments to simply live in a sighted world and attend their local school.  We cannot assume that students be able to effectively interact with sighted peers or will be accepted unless support is provided.  Teachers must do all in their power to promote peer acceptance.

Most of the skills that sighted students use in their everyday social interactions have been learned through observing others and by imitating or modelling their behaviours and then adapting the behaviours to their interaction style. For example, a student learns how to use both verbal and non-verbal communication when greeting adults or peers by observing others in his or her environment.  These observed skills are then adapted into the student’s interaction style.

Both of the above terms are explained as follows:

  • Verbal communication – You choose the appropriate greeting depending on the person to whom you are speaking, the time and place.  For example, at school when greeting a teacher a student might say “Mrs Woods, Good Morning!” whereas if greeting a peer the greeting might be “Hi, Jake.”
  • Nonverbal communication – Using the right words is not enough.  It is important that the words are said in the right way so that the nonverbal communication matches the words.  This skill includes using appropriate eye contact (looking at the person); facial expression (smiling); proximity (standing at an appropriate distance to the teacher); posture (holding yourself in a way to indicate interest); voice (using an audible voice); hands (giving a ‘Hi Five’ to a friend vs. shaking the hands of the Principal).

As you can see, communicating is not just about using the appropriate sounds, words and sentence structures to express a particular message.  It’s about knowing how and when to communicate the message appropriately according to social conventions. 

When a student has a vision impairment, his or her ability to access basic information about and through the environment is affected.  One of the limitations imposed by the vision impairment is on the ability to access visual models on which to base the development of social skills.  Another limitation has to do with the accuracy of the input received from the senses.  For example, difficulties with recognising and interpreting the body language, gestures and facial expressions of the person with whom they are communicating can result in misunderstandings and make social nuances difficult, or in certain instances, impossible to interpret.  Therefore, it is crucial that children with vision impairment are provided with social skills training to learn how to (a) behave in a socially acceptable manner, and (b) learn how to interact with others.

Learning social skills is rather like a “catch-22” situation, since in order to develop good social skills the student first needs to have several opportunities to practice these skills within a particular context.  The more opportunities the child has to practice and communicate with a variety of language models, the more flexible and sophisticated his or her social skills will become. Hence, it is important for teachers to not only focus on the student, but also, to consider the social environment.  The way “others react to and interact or do not interact” with the student can directly affect the development of social skills, self concept and overall well being (Sacks & Silberman, 2003 p. 617).

‘Social skills’ is an “umbrella term” that impacts on virtually every aspect of daily living.  Social skill competence is measured by how and when your students use  non-verbal and verbal communication skills according to the social conventions of a particular setting.

  • Eye contact
  • Facial expression
  • Gestures
  • Posture
  • Proximity
  • Body language
  • Listening
  • Grooming and hygiene
  • Greet others
  • Gain attention
  • Ask for help
  • Have a conversation
  • Share jokes
  • Join a group
  • Work co-operatively
  • Cope with conflict
  • Make friends
  • Be culturally sensitive
  • Understand and express emotions
  • Negotiate
  • Communicate assertively
  • Deal with teasing, bullying and victimization.

Learning how to use these skills is a life-long process that involves the continuous refining and adaptation of skills according to the expectations, people and situations that we encounter.  This means that getting a head start on social skills acquisition is critically important to the students in your class.

Social skills are as essential to the students in your class as are basic reading and writing skills.   Social skill acquisition is the preferred vehicle for promoting academic learning, a sense of belonging and acceptance, psychological well - being and positive self concept.  Social skills are the critically important precursors to your student building positive relationships with his or her peers at school.  Hartup and Moore (1990) highlight friendships as emotional and cognitive resources that promote well-being.   Examples of some ordinary, everyday emotional responses that friendships provide include “I think you did a great job”; “I understand how you’re feeling”, “You can hang out with us during lunchtime”.  Examples of cognitive responses that friendships provide include “I can help you with that question”, “Here is another way of doing this” and “You could have told her the bad news this way…”

  • Social rejection
  • Failure
  • Social Isolation
  • Anxiety when having to interact with others
  • Negative self concept (i.e. poor self image, low self esteem and self-worth)
  • Lack of confidence
  • Limited academic achievement
  • Boredom
  • Becoming at risk for developing mental health problems (e.g. depression)

Children’s friendships are like templates on which the child builds subsequent relationships beyond the school environment and into adulthood. Social skills are fundamental to becoming better integrated into society, and later, to finding and maintaining employment.  Therefore, a strategic time to intervene directly with children and an optimal time to facilitate social competence is from a young age.  By fostering appropriate social skills, your student will be more likely to settle well into a variety of environments and become better able to work co-operatively, confidently, and independently by experiencing social success from an early age (Sacks & Wolffe, 2000; Wolffe, Sacks & Thomas, 2000).

Developing Social Skills in the Classroom

As a teacher, you may have to deal with conflicts, emotional outbursts and perhaps a variety of inappropriate classroom behaviors by students on a regular basis.  The typical classroom day provides many incidental teaching moments upon which you can capitalize.  For example, students who are blind may have difficulty in initiating conversation if they are unaware of who is nearby.  As a result, a student may choose to remain socially passive rather than risk embarrassment (Bishop, 1996).   These highly important “teachable” moments can be used to help students learn how to interact with one another in collaborative and productive ways, such as by encouraging peers to inform the student with a vision impairment that they are in the area.  This is important because the student might not be aware of their presence.  Another example might entail providing suggestions to the student on topics they could talk about with their peers.  The greater benefits of social skills instruction is that you can improve both the academic and social functioning of individual students and improve the interpersonal climate of the classroom for all students (Siperstein & Rickards, 2004). 

Your role as a teacher in helping students acquire social skills is a critically important one.  So in conjunction with the visiting specialist vision teacher and related professionals (i.e., Orientation and Mobility Specialist; Speech and Language Pathologist; School Psychologist), the classroom teacher can have an important and central role in providing social skills support. In collaboration with other professionals, you can carry out assessments of the student’s social skills and provide strategies to promote skills in interacting with others.  You can encourage students to be assertive in expressing their needs and preferences to ensure the development of positive self esteem, self confidence and sense of identify.  The everyday experiences children have in relationships with their parents are fundamental to children developing social skills (Cohn, Patterson, & Christopoulous, 1991; Parke & Ladd, 1992).   Teachers and parents can work in collaboration to encourage and nurture the development of social skills in children.  This collaborative approach can stimulate the growth of effective social skills by providing the student with a range of learning experiences inside and outside the classroom. 

First, it is important work out what skills need to be taught to the student.  Teaching social skills can be compared to teaching academics.  The first step involves knowing where to start.  The parents, siblings, teachers, peers and the child can provide information about social skills that need to be addressed.  Direct observation, checklists, social skills scales, functional behavior assessment, identifying solutions to problem scenarios and reports are useful tools.  

Below is a social skills profile that you can use to assess the student’s abilities.  Before teaching the social skill it is important that you discuss with the student’s parents the social skill needs and give the parents the opportunity to contribute ideas and suggestions.  This discussion is extremely important since as teachers, we need to be sensitive to the cultural and religious beliefs of the family (Wolffe, Sacks & Thomas, 2000). 

Please note this is not a comprehensive list of all the skills that might be found in each of the categories, nor all of the skills that you need to focus on for your student.  The following information has been compiled from a number of sources, including Bishop, 1996; Bloom & Bhargava, 2004 b; Freeman & Dake, 1997; Sacks & Wolffe, 2000; Wolffe, Sacks & Thomas, 2000; Wolffe, Thomas & Sacks, 2000).

Social Skills Profile Table

Social Skill

Behaviours to consider

Non-verbal communication

Gestures:  Does the student use gestures to emphasise or convey your message such as waving; head nodding/shaking to indicate “yes” or “no”; pointing; shoulder shrugging; shaking hands; hugging/kissing appropriately; and covering the mouth when yawning? 


Eye contact – Does the student orient his/her body towards the person? Look towards the face of the person when speaking?


Facial expression – Does the student’s facial expression match the message (i.e. an excited look when talking about a competition they have just won)?


Posture – Does the student’s posture communicate interest or disinterest to the other person?


Proximity: How close is the student to the person when speaking?


Listening – Does the student give the speaker full attention?  Does the student interrupt the speaker? Does the student make comments about what the speaker is saying (i.e., asking questions, repeating words)?


Grooming and hygiene – Does the student wear appropriate clothes? Is the student properly groomed?  Does the student’s appearance suit the situation?


Voice – Is the voice audible?  Is it too soft or too loud?


                     (Sacks & Wolffe, 2000; Wolffe, Sacks & Thomas, 2000)


Identifying emotions in others - Is the student able to perceive and identify emotions by reading the person’s body language and/or or tone of voice? Able to label emotions that others are experiencing such as by sensing when another person is angry by the tone of voice?

Identifying own emotions – Is the student able to describe personal feelings?  Label feelings?  Discuss emotions (i.e., saying I feel angry”)?

Understanding the triggers – Is the student able to identify things that can trigger emotions in oneself and in others (i.e., I feel angry when someone takes my things without asking or someone suddenly touches me)?

Expressing emotions appropriately – Is the student able to express emotions in appropriate ways?  Identify and understand another person's perceptions, ideas and feelings, and convey that understanding through an appropriate response?  (For example, initially when the student became angry, he would hit the person causing the anger.  However, after he received specific instruction on how to effectively deal with his emotion, he would then (1) Stop; (2) Take a deep breath; (3) Relax; and (4) Deal with the issue when calmer.)

Dealing with situations – Is the student able to make decisions about situations in effective ways? (For example, when uncertain about how to deal with a situation, the student needs to stay relaxed and find his teacher or a friend to help him think of an effective solution.)

                                                               Bloom and Bhargava (2004b)

Conversational skills

Topic Management – Is the student able to initiate topics? Maintain, elaborate, and extend topics appropriately?  End the topic appropriately?  Change topics appropriately? 

Content – Is the content appropriate and relevant to the situation?  Does the student converse with others to get to know more about them or only talk about him/herself? Is there an understanding of social boundaries, or does the student frequently discuss inappropriate things?

Turn-taking skills – Is the student able to take turns as a listener? Speaker? 

Clarification Requests – Does the student ask for explanations of information when it is unclear?

                                                                  Freeman and Dake (1997)

Social etiquette

Social Courtesies - Does the student use social courtesies appropriately (i.e., Please, Thank you, and Excuse me)?

Situation specific – Does the student use appropriate language according to time? Place? Person?  Are behaviours appropriate to a specific situation (i.e., a restaurant)? Does the student know which behaviors are private, such as scratching, twitching, rocking and swaying? 

                                                                                    (Bishop, 1996)


Playground – Does the student know where and which games to play outside the school?  How to use playground equipment? Does the student play with others or alone?

Games – Does the student know how and when to play the game? Necessary equipment? Game rules? Where and with whom to play the game? How to share?

                                                               (Bloom & Bhargava, 2004a)

Friendship skills

Does the student know how to approach peers? How to make friends? Keep friends? Be a good friend? Change friends?

                                                                        (Sacks & Wolffe, 2000)


Types - Does the student understand different types of relationships (i.e., family, friendships, or employer/employee)?  Display appropriate levels of affection according to the relationship with the other person?

Dating – Does the student know how to choose a date?  Where to go?  What to talk about?  Appropriate public dating behaviours?  

Sexuality – What are socially acceptable appropriate and inappropriate public sexual behaviours?  Has the student been provided with information in an understandable manner about sex, sexual relationships, reproduction and birth control, menstruation, managing periods, sexually-transmitted diseases, and sexual abuse?

                                  (Bishop, 1996; Wolffe, Thomas & Sacks, 2000)

Telephone Skills

Is the student familiar with the different parts of a telephone? How to make a phone call? How to answer the telephone and take messages?  Whom to contact in case of an emergency? How to carry on a phone conversation with friends?

Leisure time

Within school - Does the student know available leisure activities for free time?  Where games and equipment are located or stored? How to use the items appropriately and independently?  Does the student need to have organized activities for leisure time?


Outside of school - Does the student have hobbies or creative interests at home? Know where to get information about potential leisure activities (i.e. local library, associations for vision impairment, local colleges)?  Know what details to ask for when contacting recreational centers (i.e. guide rails in bowling alleys, audio descriptions for sporting and cultural events)?

Independent travel

Is the student able to tell his/her destination to the bus or taxi driver? Able to ask the driver to indicate when they arrive at the destination?


Does the student know how to ask for assistance? Directions?


Know how to pay for the bus or taxi?


Is the student able to access the environment independently? Able to ask friends or acquaintances to use ‘sighted guide’ technique correctly and appropriately?


Talking about the vision impairment

Is the student able to inform others about the vision impairment? Its impact? Modifications others may need to make for assistance?


Is the student comfortable in answering questions from peers such as What can you see? or What’s it like to not be able to see?


Does the student tell the teacher when he/she is disturbed by classroom learning distractions such as a glare on the blackboard or an inability to read overhead transparencies?


Conflict Resolution Skills

Can the student identify situations that can cause a conflict?  Does the student know with whom to discuss conflicts? Can the student provide the relevant information about the conflict-causing situation (i.e. Who? What? Where? When? How? Why?)? Think of solutions and identify the best one? Have the skills to resolve the conflict?  Know how to prevent the situation from arising again?   

                                                              (Bloom & Bhargava, 2004 b)

Cafeteria Skills

Within school – Does the student know or can he/she ask for assistance with:

  • Locating the cafeteria? Locating the line? Asking what is available? Making an order? Paying for food? Balancing a tray while walking with a cane?
  • Finding a table to sit? Locating food on the plate? Using condiments? Drinking from cup or glass?
  • Using appropriate eating etiquette?


Outside of school - Does the student know or can s/he ask for assistance with:

  • Reading what’s on the menu? Making an order? Paying for their food? Balancing a tray (if at a food court) while walking with a cane?
  • Finding a table to sit? Locating food on their plate? Using condiments? Drinking from cup/glass? Serve self from serving bowl or platter?
  • Use appropriate eating etiquette?

                                                                         (Kelley & Smith, 2000)

Once you have identified the social skills that will benefit the student, you can employ the steps identified in this instructional sequence as a guide to facilitate learning:

Step 1:     Provide a rationale – Help the student understand “what” the skill is and “why” it is useful. You might invite an adult who is legally blind or has low vision to act as a role model by discussing and demonstrating effective social skills and answering student questions (Sacks & Silberman, 2000).

Step 2:     Provide modeling – Give verbal descriptions of the people involved in the situation, their actions and reactions. Encourage the student to consider social cues. For example, a wealth of information can be gained about how someone is feeling by listening to the variations in voice volume, pitch and rhythm. Through having such a dialogue, the student is not only listening and/or viewing the content, but also responding to questions, sharing observations, expressing ideas and opinions.  Encouraging reflection is the key ingredient for transforming an experience into a genuine learning experience, as such dialogue will promote deeper understanding (Markus, Howard & King, 1993).

Step 3:     Provide guided practice – Provide the student with opportunities to practice or rehearse skills in arranged situations that simulate the actual situation.  Provide the student with multiple opportunities to practice the skill in small, structured groups with same-age peers in a comfortable, fun, and supportive environment.  Initially you may have the student with vision impairment practising these skills with an adult and then proceed to practising with peers.  Through role playing and videoing practice scenarios you can provide positive and constructive feedback to shape the student’s behaviour.  Sacks and Silberman (2000) point out that you can also encourage “sighted peers to help the student with the vision impairment engage in social experiences throughout the day” (p 637). 

Step 4:     Teach self-regulation – Self-regulation is the ability to evaluate one’s own behaviour and emotions in terms of their appropriateness so as to regulate them accordingly.  Self-regulation includes skills such as monitoring, evaluating,   managing, and reinforcing oneself.  Self-monitoring involves conducting an assessment of one’s own behaviour as appropriate or inappropriate (Conroy & Sellers, 2001).  Children with vision impairments often have difficulty interpreting body language and monitoring their own behaviour in social situations (Erwin, 1993).  Initially you may need to prompt them to heighten awareness of their own behaviour.  It is important to encourage the student to self-evaluate skill performance and think of strategies for doing things differently.  This process helps the student with the promotion of skill maintenance and growth through self-monitoring.  Strategies such as audio taping, video taping, role-playing social situations and using individualised stories can promote thinking, self-evaluation and planning by the student (Bloom & Bhargava, 2004; Sacks & Silberman, 2000). 

Step 5:     Promote generalisation – Generalisation is a form of a critical yardstick by which the effectiveness of the skills and strategies can be informally gauged in terms of how well students can adapt the skills taught into their everyday life settings.  Generalisation programming should be considered from the start and become a part of the social skills instruction program.  It will be important to provide opportunities for the student to use newly acquired social skills in a variety of settings, and with different people.  Assistance from parents is also invaluable to ensure generalisation, as they can set up and/or observe home- and community-based events in which the student is expected to use these skills. 

Kelelis, Sacks and Wolffe (2000) have suggested that “…there are no easy ‘how to’ lessons that teach social skills.  Yet there are moments each day when parents and teachers can respond to situations in ways that help children with visual impairments learn social skills” (p. 20). 


Initiating Friendships – The Circle of Friends Process

While it is not possible to force friendships, it is possible to create opportunities that encourage friendships to develop.  Students with vision impairment benefit from specific assistance with fitting into the school’s social environment.  The Circle of Friends (Perske & Perske, 1988) is an approach that can be used to make opportunities for friendship available to the student with vision impairment.  

Circle of Friends is a support structure that aims to assist the student who is having difficulties with making friends.  The object is to make sure the student is included in activities and feel a part of a group.  The process provides peer support, encouragement and friendship to the student.

How do you set it up?

  1. As a group discuss with all students the importance of friendships and what it would be like not to have friends.  Inform them you will be starting a program called Circle of Friends.  This program will assist students who would like to make new friends, but for a number of reasons are finding it difficult.  Ask students to volunteer for this program.  Encourage those students to join who would like to make friends.  Alternatively, you could ask all students in the class to be involved in the Circle of Friends program so as not to single out the students who have no friends.
  2. Once the students who would like to volunteer have been identified, set a meeting time where you can begin the program.   In the meeting

Draw 3 concentric circles on a chart. 

The inner circle should represent the student with vision impairment.  The student’s name should be written in that circle.

The second circle should include names of friends of the student with vision impairment.

The outermost circle should be filled with names of classmates who would like to volunteer and act as “social helpers” (mentors). 

If friendships develop, the classmates who were initially volunteers can move into the second circle.  As “social helpers,” their role is to assist the student in feeling a part of the school community.  The “social helpers” can be assigned responsibilities of assisting the student in different school location areas.  For example, all “social helpers” have to greet the student, be friendly and helpful to the student as appropriate throughout the day.  Some “social helpers” can help the student on the playground, whereas others can be responsible for helping the student in the cafeteria, and so on.  Along with assisting the student with vision impairment, encourage the “social helpers” to think of ways in which they can become true friends. 

NOTE:  It is important that the “social helpers” are provided support and given opportunities to talk.  Initially, a weekly meeting needs to be organised so that they have the opportunity to talk about the good things that happened during the week and to discuss issues that may have arisen.  Suggestions on how to deal with problems can be provided.

You can find out more about Circle of Friends in an article by Frederickson, N. & Turner, J. (2003):  “Utilizing the classroom peer group to address children's social needs: An evaluation of the Circle of Friends intervention approach.”  Journal of Special Education, 36, 234-245. 

Additional Resources

In conclusion, it is important to re-emphasise that the development of social competencies and peer relationships can’t be left to chance, particularly if you have a student who is blind or vision impaired in your class.  Wolffe, Thomas and Sacks (2000) state, “Good communication skills are not developed overnight.  It takes practice in a variety of social settings to learn how to be an effective communicator and to demonstrate good social skills.” (pg. 12).

For more information and resources for teaching social interaction skills to students with vision impairments please visit the TSBVI website ( and the Minnesota DeafBlind Project pages (


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