In 1985, Dr. Jan van Dijk lectured at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. During his lecture he discussed the central nervous system and how it relates to engaging a child who is deafblind in learning. The central nervous system gains information through our sensory pathways that include vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and proprioception.
All human beings experience activities, objects, creatures, and people that attract or repel them, sometimes for reasons we can’t understand related to their etiology, previous experiences, or other factors. Dr. van Dijk made use of this phenomenon to develop and enrich learning activities that would engage the child who was deafblind.
For a learner who has some damage or impairment to any of their sensory pathways, learning becomes much more difficult. For family members and educators, knowledge about the child’s ability to use various pathways effectively is critical. We can assess these pathways in various ways, but to utilize them for learning, we need to find out what they can do to motivate or shut down the child’s engagement. We do this by carefully observing the learner’s reactions. This observation provides two important pieces of information about the child: 1) indicates which of the learner’s sensory pathways are more intact and which sustained more damaged and 2) what sensory information engages the individual in exploration and interaction.
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These reactions, Dr. van Dijk referred to as appetites and aversions. “Appetites” are associated with experiences that strengthen the organization of the sensory nervous system. Appetites serve as a gateway to elicit attending in the learner. “Aversions” are experiences that disorganize system and speak to damage and weakness of that sensory pathway. Both can have impact on short-term and long-term memory.
Dr. van Dijk based much of his work on the theories of Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist, known for his work on psychological development in children. The importance of adult modeling and quality interactions between the child and adult are a key part of his approach.
Understanding what motivates a child is key to all learning, and Dr. Lilli Nielsen, among other pioneers in the field of education for children who are visually impaired, also focused on utilizing sensory pathway availability and interest in certain features of objects to facilitate learning for the child. She was aware of the impact of social and emotional development and its role in the overall development of the child. Her work was largely based on the work of Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist known for his work on child development and his theory of cognitive development.
Current research validates the importance of understanding how the child receives and processes sensory information, how the brain’s architecture is developed by this information, and the importance of mental health (social-emotional development and interaction) in learning for all children. This is especially true for children like these who face the most significant challenges in learning.
We are very grateful to these two pioneers in deafblind education. We also deeply value the work and contributions of many others in current times who are growing in our understanding of these children’s educational needs and how to provide quality programming.
“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.”
– Abigail Adams