Ask the expert: Millie Smith shares strategies for educating children with severe disabilities

Successfully teaching children with multiple impairments requires goals, collaboration and accountability from both parents and educators

Millie Smith presenting at front of room

Millie Smith shares wisdom and experience with educators at Perkins. Credit: Anna Miller

June 29, 2015

Millie Smith is a nationally known expert on assessing and educating children with visual impairments and other disabilities. Formerly a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) at Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, she currently instructs professionals and parents. She spent a week in June at Perkins School for the Blind, sharing strategies with educators and talking to us about what parents and teachers should know about working with children with visual and multiple disabilities.

What is your job?

I train teachers and develop products to meet the needs of students at the very earliest stages of development: sensory motor and early preoperational. Preoperational means the beginning of concept and vocabulary development. I’ve developed a sensory learning kit and the Symbols and Meaning (SAM) program, both produced by American Printing House for the Blind. I (sometimes teach at) three school districts in Texas. I can’t do training if I’m not in the classrooms; there are things I have to try out. I have to know it’s right before showing someone else.

What are key things parents of children with significant disabilities should know?

One, learning never stops. Goals are always achievable if they’re appropriate to that child’s situation and abilities. Two, there isn’t any one person in the family or educational community that knows all the answers to making a student’s program work. Collaboration is essential and the parental piece of that is essential. And three, accountability is crucial, no matter how significant (a disability) or challenging your child is. When a child isn’t achieving, it’s the parents who must be the catalyst for the Individual Education Program (IEP) team to review practices and strategies and collaboratively come up with what will be better and what will work. If we could get parents to be accountability gatekeepers, there wouldn’t be an issue (with students not making progress).

What can parents of very young children do at home?

They should focus on bonding and building trust with their child, and then provide health and comfort. It might seem odd to put health and comfort second, but research shows nothing is more important than the human connection. Once that’s taken care of, (parents) can look for activities and challenges that are geared to the age and ability of their child.

What do you like about presenting to parents and teachers together?

It’s very powerful for parents and teachers to hear about best practices at the same time, to start off in the same place for making equally empowered decisions about the child. Most teachers aren’t trained in multiple disabilities. The ideal is for teachers to say, “This is new information for me, you’re hearing it at the same time, what are we going to do with it?” That’s collaboration.

How did you get into this line of work? 

I began as an English teacher in a school with kids that had a lot of behavioral issues. I applied for a graduate program in emotional disabilities and was recruited by a woman who had a daughter with visual impairment. I met the daughter and was hooked. (I like) the complexity of the challenge. I became an English teacher because I wanted to talk about Shakespeare all day. But I soon realized that what I wanted was to make it relevant for a specific child. I’m much more interested in how to make something work for a particular person than in the content itself.

Millie Smith is co-author of the textbook “Teaching Students with Visual and Multiple Impairments – A Resource Guide,” as well as numerous journal articles. Her sensory learning kit and the Symbols and Meaning program (SAM) are available through American Printing House for the Blind. She shares advice for parents and educators on the FamilyConnect website, sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind and the National Association of Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (NAPVI).

Read more about: Advocacy, Early Learning, Families