Sensorimotor and More with Nathalie DeWitt

How can you reach a child in the sensorimotor stage of development? We talked with an expert in this topic and she explains it all.



Valerie: Hello, and welcome to Perkins eLearning To Go. Each week, our hope is to provide you with an inside look at special education topics, in particular, visual impairment. Through a series of interviews with leaders in the field and a fresh look at our webcast series, we know you will learn something new when you are on the go. Now it’s time to sit back, relax, and let’s hear what this week’s podcast is all about.

Welcome to Perkins eLearning To Go. This is Valerie. We have a great podcast today. Nathalie de Wit is a teacher for the visually impaired here at Perkins. She works in our Lower School. Her specialty is teaching children who are in the sensorimotor stage of development. And she is here to discuss this important topic with us today.


Thank you very much, Nathalie, for joining me today. It’s a pleasure to have you here.

Nathalie: Thank you for asking.

So I was curious. How did you become interested in strategies for teaching children at the sensorimotor level?

Nathalie: So that was one of the difficult things that I didn’t have. And so when I saw– it was easier to teach kids at a higher level, like maybe when you start at [? choices, ?] but not really before that. The kids, we just didn’t have really a very good understanding.

And then Millie Smith came here to Perkins, and she had some really great ideas. And I realized that I didn’t have any of that in school. So in the ’70s and ’80s, Lilli Nielsen and van Dijk and all those people have done many different kinds of strategies, similar strategies, but also different kinds of strategies for students at the sensorimotor level, which really came out of the deafblind population at that time with the rubella problems that they had at the time. And so there were some really nice strategies that I was never taught in school.

So when I heard Millie Smith here a couple of times at Perkins, I was really interested in the steps that were really small. And they were all based on developmental levels, so teaching the students some very basic skills that I felt were no longer being taught because we’re so focused on MCAS and using technology and things like that that are very important. But they also leave some students behind. So we wanted to make sure that– or I was looking for something in that realm of having some strategies for those students who are left behind.

And it feels like those were definitely presented in Millie Smith’s work and in van Dijk’s work. And it’s all based on Piaget’s and other people developmental levels for humans. So it’s pretty substantially researched that we understand the smaller, individual increments of the developmental level of our students.

So I know because I’ve watched your videos for your course with us. And there’s one little girl. I forget her name. But she has the water bottle full of beans.

And she’s just going to town with that thing. It’s really interesting to see your creativity, number one, with the bottle and the beans. But as you watch her videos, how she does progress, it’s very, very interesting. And she’s cute as a button, especially with that water bottle. But to see it happening in a video is really, really interesting.

Nathalie: Yeah.

Valerie: Do you think that would be like an aha moment for you?

Nathalie: Yes, that was definitely the main one. So we started with her. She started in the ELC, in the Early Learning Center, here at Perkins. And I saw her at the end of her stay in the ELC, which I think she’s been there three years, so in her third year.

Valerie: And she always pushed everything away. And so I needed to decide, really, does she really not want anything? Or does she not know how to hold things and how to interact with things?

Nathalie: And so for some reason, we were playing. And I just felt like she was interested. And it was more observing her and observation of what she was doing in her environment and understanding her positive and negative reactions to different things in the environment. And so I tried a bunch of different things, vibration and light. And she has very little vision, so the water bottle with the beans was really the thing she liked best. And I would have been like, why? And many people actually have commented like, why the water bottle? Like, that’s the only thing she really likes?


So that was definitely a moment where I remember checking off how many seconds she was holding it. And then within two months, she was holding it for minutes. And I was so excited. I told everybody on her team.

And it was really remarkable, because she was then able to change the water bottle positioning in different ways. And she could squeeze it to make the noise. She could shake it to make the noise. And she could transfer to her other hand. And those were really the basic skills to now she can feed herself, which she would have never been able to do had she not gotten those hand skills.

And it’s many years later. I think– let’s see. I believe this is her fourth year in the Lower School. So she’s probably around 10. And she had ups and downs in her health.

And so it wasn’t a clear line at all of progression. But there’s definitely that skill that she kept of being able to hold something and then she can then– then she started holding her cup. So she was able to drink herself. And now she’s able to hold the spoon and feed herself.

So that’s really, really cool and super exciting just to see a little bit of effort that you provide in very strict routines so that she knows what’s coming up and what to do. And that really was very helpful for her. And that was definitely my aha moment.

Valerie: Yeah, and it must be so rewarding for you, because it’s hard work for you and her.

Nathalie: Yeah, definitely.

Valerie: But to be able to see how far she’s come, that’s amazing.

Nathalie: It is. And you forget about it sometimes, because you always are looking for that next step. Now she’s starting to understand when I ask if she wants more food. So do you want more? And she’s vocalizing that. So now we’re excited about that. And so there’s definitely growth. But it took a long time. But it’s definitely rewarding. And it’s a team approach, and it’s also that connection you have with a student that makes it very important, because she needs to be able to trust whomever is working with her.

Valerie: Yeah, and you were able to tap into what she might really like as well. And if anything, she has a really good beat too. She has a future there.



Valerie: So in the successes that you’ve seen with your students like you saw with her, do you have any other successes that stick in mind using your methodologies?

Nathalie: Yeah, there’s really a lot of students who have benefited from these different strategies, because our population in the Lower School is really– a lot of the population, maybe 50% or 60%, is around that stage of development, so between 0 and two years of age.

And so we use those strategies for downtime. We also use some active learning strategies. And it’s always slow progress. But it’s the progress where the finger moves maybe a spoon or something or bells. And then the hand comes. And then the whole body starts moving.

And so it’s really amazing to see that progress as long as you can be OK with the little increments that they progress at, because some people might not think that using your finger is an accomplishment. But for our students, it really is. And having them show understanding by maybe smiling if some of their favorite toys come on or whatever they’re more interested in, it’s wonderful. It’s just the best thing that you could do. And being able to show a student that they have control over their body and they have a lot of meaning and control over the environment and what they do is something I think we all have the right to have, and not all people are able to grow up and have that.

And they just need help learning. And it might now be like, I don’t really want to eat that food. Or I don’t want to play with that toy or anything like that whereas before they couldn’t make choices, or they couldn’t even enjoy an item because they weren’t able to understand how to use it or how to use it to their advantage.

Valerie: Interesting. So you’re giving them, and they’re learning independence, a form of independence that is only going to get better in the future for them.

Nathalie: Yeah, and I think it’s the independence that you may not look at as independence. Like when we think of independence, maybe just generally, you think of a student who might be able to walk with a cane or go on the bus and take the bus to Harvard Square or something like that. But to have the control for the student in the video, for having control over her cup, and if she’s done with it, tossing it, or refusing it, or drinking it, those are all things that provide her independence and provide her some control over her own body and her environment. And I feel the–


–really [? the ?] [? strength ?] [INAUDIBLE]. And it will help them blossom, I guess, in a way to help them grow these passions. And that’s really what we start with is those things that they enjoy.

Valerie: So what recommendations would you have for teachers who work with children at the sensorimotor level?

Nathalie: I think providing them a quiet space where they can interact with them and learn what they like– Millie Smith, on the SLK, the Sensory Learning Kit, has a nice book with it where you assess them for what types of things they like. And maybe it could be some kind of light or vibration or certain things that they eat or smell, jumping, or whatever it is that you then incorporate that piece into a routine. And you use that to your advantage, because the students, at this level, can often just go to sleep. And so they will just then ignore everything.

Valerie: Take a nap.

Nathalie: Yeah, take a nap. It’s easy, right? And nobody’s going to ask me to do anything.

Valerie: That would be great.

Nathalie: It would be great. I agree. So often, it’s the things that you are interested in. I mean, it’s for anyone, right? My daughter– I give this example a lot. But my daughter studies physics, and I know nothing about physics. So I can’t pretend I know and then move into that direction and learn something that’s way above my head.

For these students too, if they’re not interested in learning something, why would they? We think that it’s important for them to eat and to make choices. But somebody is going to feed them because else they wouldn’t be here. And so there’s very little ways that if you don’t do something they like, then they can’t really learn as well.

It’s just like for everyone else. So if we can get the students to– if we can be in this quiet environment as teachers, as related service providers, as anyone who wants to, a parent or grandparent, play with a student and just react, so if you do something and you wait– so maybe you’re rocking the student. And you wait.

And the student makes that rocking motion again. You get to learn that they like that because they’re asking for more, essentially, with their bodies. And so that is really what you would be looking for in that interaction. And then you can add that into a school routine or a home routine or anything.

So they really need to be, like you said before, really know their students, [? to ?] [? order ?] and inquisitive enough to be able to see that that’s what they like to do. Because it could be something small that they’re doing.

It could be anything. And for some students who may check out or sleep or have little movements, it might just be moving their muscles. So if you’re the teacher or another provider, then you really may want to ask the parent, because the parent often knows the intricacies of, oh, my child is very happy when they– I don’t know– maybe when they open their hands, or they’re angry when they close their fists, or something like that that you may not have thought of before. The parents often have spent that time from infancy. So they often know what the likes and dislikes are or how they are perceived from the outside.

So it gives you a leg up when you start to work with the child. You might already know what they’re going to be reactive to.

And if you know what– so for some students, they have, for example, neurological laughs. So if you interpret every single laugh as a happy sound, then you’re not really giving them the support that they need to explain to you what they’re feeling at the time. So if you will talk to the parents and you say, OK, is there a way that you understand happiness or sadness or joy or something positive or negative? Then you do have already a step above where you started from.

And then slowly, you will create your own relationship with the student. And they may, in a different place and a different environment, they may have different ways that they show you how they feel. And that happens a lot with our students where maybe they do something at home, but they don’t do it in school. But within the environment, they understand what they do. They just can’t quite yet cross both environments to do the same thing.

Valerie: That’s very interesting. Is there anything else you would like to add to the podcast or anything you’d like to– I asked this of Megan Mogan. If you were to talk to young Nathalie just starting out in the field, what advice would you give her? So thinking about people who are now going to be graduating, what advice would you give them?

Nathalie:I would advise them to be open open-minded and very observant, loving and kind, and also be very much part of a team, because I believe that sometimes if professionals are not relating well to, say, a teacher or to a teaching assistant or something, you’re missing out on a piece of valuable information that the teaching assistant may have worked with the student for many years and already knows a whole lot. And everybody has something valuable to offer. And all you’re doing is being here for the student and not being here to make yourself look better in some community or book or whatever. And so I think that if you focus on the students and understand that they are what you are there for– they are the people who you serve– you won’t have to make that.

You won’t get lost and maybe jumping on the wrong bandwagon. So I think that’s what I would really try to make it say to somebody who is just starting out. Make it a positive experience for the students.

Valerie: So keep the focus where it needs to be.

Nathalie: Exactly.

Valerie: Well, thank you so much for sitting with me, Nathalie. I really appreciate you taking the time, especially as this is a holiday weekend. And I really appreciate you taking the time to sit with me.

Nathalie: Thank you so much for your interest.

Valerie: Thank you.

Nathalie: Thanks.

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