Visual Impairments

There has been little research on how young children with limited sight interact with their peers. There are a number of reasons why research has been so limited. Children with vision impairments make up a diverse group. There are children who are completely blind and those with functional vision. In addition, children with visual impairments often have other disabilities as well, so it is difficult to attribute results to the visual impairment alone. Finally, visual impairments are a very low incidence disability; consequently, the number of children who are affected is small (Diamond, 2002). In spite of these limitations, we do know something about the social development of children who are blind.

It is logical to assume that the social development of children with visual impairments would be affected by their loss of sight. Vision is important in our social interchanges because a major part of these interchanges involves the observation of others. Children who have visual impairments may have difficulty in social relationships because their poor vision prevents them from interpreting subtle social cues, because they cannot see how others respond to their behavior, and because their understanding of play activities, social rules, and social conventions may be limited or distorted by their lack of sight (Diamond, 2002, p. 581).

Children who are typically developing provide challenges to children who are blind, too. Young children—particularly those who play without using much language—may be unpredictable in their movements around children who are blind (Zanandra, 1998). They may expect quick responses to their social overtures and may move quickly from one activity to another. Expectations for a quick response and transitions from one play activity to another present problems for children who are blind (Zanandra, 1998).

Diamond (2002) reports that studies that do describe the social interactions of children with visual impairments show that they interact more with adults than peers, and that they participate more in solitary activities than would be expected for their age. However, McGaha and Farran (2001) compared the social behaviors of children who were visually impaired or sighted and who attended an inclusive preschool program. Both groups of children spent most of their time near children who were sighted, but there was no difference between the groups in interaction with other children. In an interesting finding, McGaha and Farran (2001) found that children with visual impairments participated in more interactive play when they were indoors and more parallel play when they were outdoors. They speculated that children who have visual impairments are challenged to engage in interactions when confronted by the large space of a playground and children’s tendency to be mobile.

Hearing impairments

Children who have limited hearing share the problems and frustrations in social interaction experienced by children with other sensory impairments. This disability limits children’s social experiences and feelings of social competence (Brown, Remine, Prescott, & Rickards, 2000). On the other hand, Vandell and George (1981) reported examples of consistent social competence by children with hearing impairments in their interactions with hearing children. They were persistent initiators of interactions and, in the absence of language, developed alternate communication strategies. Hearing children did not do as well in modifying their communication strategies (i.e., they still used verbal modes), but their social interactions were positive. The implications of these findings support the position that children with hearing impairments can benefit from opportunities for independence and interactions with their environment at an early age.

Researchers have also investigated how children who are deaf or hard of hearing enter and maintain play episodes with their peers. Brown and her colleagues (2000) compared entry strategies to dramatic play and nonplay activities of kindergarteners with profound hearing losses and those with normal hearing. They found both similarities and differences between these two groups. Both groups used utterances or actions that were related to the group activity to gain entry to sociodramatic play and nonplay activities. Both groups were equally successful in gaining entry to the group. However, children with normal hearing showed a greater range of entry behaviors. For example, these children were more likely than children with hearing loss to survey the ongoing play activity and then choose an entry behavior that was related to the play. Children with normal hearing also used entry behaviors that brought attention to themselves and that provided information about themselves to the other play partners.

It is important to note that there may be differences between children who are deaf and born to deaf parents compared to children who are deaf and born to hearing parents. Children who are deaf and born to deaf parents may have different opportunities to learn language from their parents and may have the opportunity to interact with peers who share their language system (Brinton & Fujiki, 2002). There is limited research on this important topic, however.