Learning from Linda: How Lessons From Linda Hagood’s “Better Together” Helped Me Improve My Instructional Practices
Authors: Adam Graves, Deafblind Educational Consultant, Outreach Program, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI)
Keywords: Linda Hagood, Better Together, relationship-based instruction, interdependence, deafblind, multiple disabilities, limiting instructional demands, predictability of instruction
Over the years, there have been many articles and books written by Linda Hagood that have informed my practice as both a teacher and as a consultant. There are some of us who consider her resource guide on communication between educators and students with visual impairments and multiple disabilities Communication: A Guide for Teaching Students with Visual and Multiple Impairments (TSBVI, 1997) to be foundational knowledge in the field of education for students who are visually impaired and deafblind and have multiple disabilities. However, of all of the many strategies for improving instructional practices that Linda Hagood has provided to our field, the passages to which I most often refer are from Chapter 4: Strategies for Building Relationships (pp. 118–129) in her book Better Together: Building Relationships with People Who Have Visual Impairment & Autism Spectrum Disorder (or Atypical Social Development). I frequently provide information contained in this chapter as a reference for teams working with students of all ages and ranges of disability. In my experience, this chapter provides one of the strongest and most concise examples of how we, as educators, can create an emotional environment in which our students are encouraged to learn by limiting our demands and increasing our predictability.
As Linda explains in Better Together, limiting our demands of students does not mean that the students are left to explore the classroom or make discoveries on their own without the support of a teacher. Rather, as she describes in this passage, limiting the demands on the students requires increasing the responsibilities of the teachers working with that student. This is particularly true when it comes to providing a visual or tactile model.
There is a broad array of information available regarding the impact of visual impairment on incidental learning and concept development. In fact, the body of knowledge on this subject is the basis for the direct instruction of the subjects covered in the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC). In Chapter 4 of Better Together, Linda makes the case that direct instruction in the ECC means that teachers need to “Model, Model, Model” (p. 124). She explains that teachers working with students who are visually impaired, including those who are deafblind or have multiple disabilities, should constantly model not only the actions but also the language of interdependence. She explains that repeated modeling of actions and language can demonstrate and describe “the value of interdependence.” Evaluating the student’s responses to these models and cues is key to creating an affirmative learning environment.
For many years I have found that modeling “the value of interdependence,” as Linda describes it, is much more helpful than using the term independence. I often ponder the varying degrees to which we are able to accomplish various tasks in our life on our own and the degree to which we are interdependent with others. For example, I like to bake bread. I can easily bake a loaf of bread by purchasing the tools and ingredients required for this task and reading and following a recipe on my own. However, there are many more steps to bread baking that occur before I even purchase the ingredients that I cannot do myself. I am dependent on others to grow the wheat, mill the flour, refine the sugar, make the measuring and mixing utensils, and write down the recipe before I can begin the last part of the bread baking process, which is reading the recipe and mixing everything together in the right order. That’s not even mentioning all the steps that go into making the oven I need to bake it in! The point is, while I might think that I am capable of baking a loaf of bread independently, there is a limit to what I am capable of contributing to the process of making that bread on my own. Conversely, there may be people who assemble the mixer that I use to combine the ingredients for the bread that might depend on someone like me to put all the ingredients together in the right way to make homemade bread for them from time to time. To me, this is the understanding of the “value of interdependence” that Linda describes. Learning what my capabilities and limits are, where I can go, or who I can ask for support in obtaining the things I need to get me to the steps that I can do on my own doesn’t make me less independent. It just provides me with a better understanding of the things that I depend on others to provide for me and the things that I can provide for others.
I have found that taking a less directive approach to instruction places fewer demands on the student while adopting Linda’s strategy of modeling interdependent roles places more demands on me to thoughtfully model the value of interdependence. Modeling, through turn-taking and following the student’s lead when engaging in activities with their favorite objects, has provided a solid foundation for students to develop their own sense of agency and the desire to push their limits a little bit further. It has also helped foster a more collaborative relationship with the student, which has made learning new concepts much easier and more enjoyable for both of us.
Like the impact of visual impairment on incidental learning, the importance of providing predictability and routines when implementing instruction has also been well described. In her book Calendars for Students with Multiple Impairments Including Deafblindness (TSBVI, 2001), Robbie Blaha explains how calendar routines provide structure, predictability, and consistency that can help foster the development of symbolic communication and language. Linda expands on this idea in Chapter 4 of Better Together by explaining, “The student who is familiar with the sequence of events can free up cognitive and social space for the development of the relationship” (p. 126). She also describes the importance of creating routines that are interactive, meaning that both the instructor and the student have roles within the routine. She emphasizes using hand-under-hand support rather than hand-over-hand control when engaging in these routines with students. As she explains, “This [hand-under-hand] is a powerful strategy for the relationship-based teacher since it gives the student a sense of safety and control.”(p. 127).
The notion that predictability can free up “cognitive and social space,” as Linda described, has also resonated with me many times throughout my practice. As with the notion of limiting demands and providing direct instructional models of the various subject areas of the ECC for students, this idea has been explored rather extensively. However, the reason that I refer back to Linda’s description so frequently is because of the seamless connection that she makes between the intellectual (cognitive) and the emotional/interpersonal (social) demands that are placed on all of us when we are challenged with new ideas, concepts, or skills. In the years since I first read this chapter, I have been exposed to many descriptions from a multitude of sources, including the IRIS Center at Vanderbilt University and the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, on how freeing up “cognitive and social space” through predictability is the foundation for positive relationships, as well as social, emotional, and intellectual growth. However, I continue to find myself returning to Linda’s description of how to free up this space in Better Together when attempting to explain to others why the predictability and consistency of routines, in which both the student and the teacher are participants and partners, is so important to the growth of every child, not just those who are blind, visually impaired, deafblind or who have multiple disabilities.
A Good Time Was Had By All
I have relied many times on Linda’s descriptions of limiting demands and increasing predictability in Better Together when considering how to describe what effective programming looks like for teachers who are looking to improve the educational environments for their students who are blind, visually impaired, and deafblind. However, the main reason that I continue to recommend this particular chapter to Teachers of Students Who Have Visual Impairments (TSVIs) and educational teams time and time again is because of the section Linda titled Find the Smile. Here is what she writes:
“Put aside all of your other teaching objectives during the first week of school, and consider yourself successful if you find the smile. If you’re a data-keeping type, tally the number of smiles and the situations which elicited them. An experienced and skillful teacher once told me that if there was only one behavior that a child could learn, it would be to smile (Hobbs, 1990). It is a universal sign of connection and joy which serves to draw others closer. The smile naturally reinforces the partner’s efforts to engage with the student and can guide the teacher to the development of activities in which both the student and teacher are mutually engaged” (Hagood, p. 124).
To me, this paragraph provides a perfect summary of the importance that positive, affirming relationships play in providing quality educational opportunities for our students. We can use tools such as Likes and Dislikes Forms to design activities that we expect to maintain the student’s interest, but we often quickly abandon these activities if we fail to find a smile from the student during them. Conversely, students will quickly abandon activities we thought they would like if they fail to find our smiles when we engage in that activity with them.
We know that co-active play is such an integral part of social and cognitive development. Many times I have thought about Linda’s words when working with a student on a repetitive task that neither of us seemed to particularly enjoy. Reminding myself to “find the smile” has helped me become more responsive to my students and to more thoughtfully consider the “value of interdependence” through the creation of activities that my students and I will enjoy doing together.
As a teacher, Chapter 4 of Better Together provided me with reassurance that when I was struggling to connect with or provide instruction to my students, it was sometimes okay to let go of the goals and objectives of the IEP and just go back to trying to “find the smile,” even with students that I knew well and had worked with for many years. As a consultant with the Texas DeafBlind Project, this chapter has helped me articulate why building trusting relationships with students is so important in order to support students achieve their educational goals. It also provided me with a relatively straightforward resource explaining how to do that. It can be very difficult for us as instructors to try to adapt our own perceptions and behaviors to create routines for students who have patterns of social interaction that are different from our own. In this chapter, Linda Hagood has provided us with a concise summary of how years of research in the field of attachment theory is applicable in our own practice by helping us learn to change our approach and our perspectives to develop meaningful and motivating educational activities for the students with whom we work.
Blaha, R. (2001). Calendars for students with multiple impairments including deafblindness. Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Hagood. L. (2008). Better together: Building relationships with people who have visual impairment & autism spectrum disorder (or atypical social development). Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Hagood, L. (1997). Communication: A resource guide for teachers of students with visual and multiple impairments. Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
IEPS: Developing high-quality individualized education programs. (n.d.). IRIS Center. Retrieved on March 24, 2022 from https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/iep01/
Resources archive. (n.d.). Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Retrieved on March 24, 2022 from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/