Teaching the Visual-Spatial Learning Disabled Child: When Moving About is Confusing

Victoria Brown

A child in your class does fine when he’s in one place, but moving around seems to leave him bewildered. He can’t find his way to the bathroom or to the people or things he is looking for. He has been in this school for two years now and this problem is ongoing. How can you help him?

As teachers, we are familiar with students who have trouble processing sound (they have auditory processing and/or language problems) or have trouble coordinating movements (they appear uncoordinated). But, we are often much less knowledgeable about an equally important and prevalent processing disability, “visual-spatial processing” or “visual-spatial thinking.”
This form of processing has to do with the steps we take to visually order our world, from:
• seeing something
• to making sense out of what we see
• to being able to remember it
• to being able to problem-solve through that knowledge
Through this process, we determine how to search for missing objects or how to get to the bathroom. In school, most students figure out where their classroom is after they have been there a couple of times. In essence, they construct a picture in their mind that allows them to navigate around and find their way from point A to point B.
Some students, however, cannot make sense of navigation; thus, they can create pictures of certain things in their minds, but cannot picture the spatial relationships between them.
There are many different components to visual-spatial thinking: Determining where the bathroom in a house is in relationship to the kitchen is one of them. Doing geometry and other high-level mathematical thinking also depends on the ability to picture things in space.
When our students have difficulty figuring out relationships among the objects they see, we must work to strengthen their capacities. As is the case with most skills: the more you practice the better you will become with it. It is imperative, however, when you teach students to become better at visual-spatial thinking, to practice with the student, repeatedly, in the way you want them to learn the task. Thus, students cannot learn visual-spatial thinking by memorizing where the teacher or the desk is, what the bathroom looks like, or where the library is as, instead, this practice improves rote memory and will not allow the child to improve her ability to understand the relationships between objects, which is the product of visual-spatial thinking.
In teaching students to be better visual-spatial thinkers, you can begin with simple tasks, such as taking the student from one side of the room to the other while they can still see the other side of the room. Next, she can graduate to more complex tasks like leaving the room to walk to the bathroom or library and back again. In doing so, students exercise the ability to view visual-spatial relationships between the things they see.
The key to teaching a visual-spatial child how to better navigate space requires the educator to provide motivating and interesting experiences so that the student is forced to practice exploring the room or the distance between classes in the hallway. You should begin very simply with these tasks, gradually making them more complicated as the child gains a greater grasp of visual-spatial reasoning on their own.
For example, a pre-school age child might need (to keep his interest while practicing visual-spatial reasoning):
• Clues asking him to find something he wants. With your assistance, he becomes a systematic searcher and learns to construct space.
• Games, like hide-and-go-seek. Begin by hiding behind things that are not too difficult to discover. Then, eventually expand to hide-and-go-seek and treasure-hunt games involving several different rooms.
• After awhile, take little outings where he is expected to go to the bathroom and back. Make it easy by walking with him the first time, all the way back and forth. The second time, walk with him halfway and stand halfway between him and the bathroom, so his task requires only navigating halfway between you and the bathroom. Eventually, move on to finding the office at school and different parts of the playground. Repeat this until the particular student exhibits mastery of the school environment.

As teachers, remember to encourage the development of visual-spatial relationships within the context of high motivation. By dividing larger tasks into a series of smaller ones, the student can achieve success in each one. If the task becomes too hard for your learning disabled student, make it even simpler, until she can expect success in navigating her space to achieve her goals.

Stanley I Greenspan. “When Moving About is Confusing.” Scholastic Early Childhood Today. New York: Mar 2007. Vol. 21, Iss. 5; pg. 16.