Embracing the Sensorimotor Stage
When a child has complex needs involving vision, hearing, motor, and cognitive impairments, it’s tempting to rush to introduce using a switch or a communication device, but slowing down and providing your child the time needed to practice and master skills in the sensorimotor stage may be the key to unlocking these higher-level goals.
For a child with blindness or low vision who has additional complex learning needs, acquiring and mastering the sensorimotor stage of development may take more time.
Sensorimotor Stage of Development
The sensorimotor stage of cognitive development is a learning period when the primary skills are attention and interaction with people, objects, places, and actions. Sensorimotor is the first stage of development and is typically associated with the activities and growth experienced by a child between zero and two years old (Piaget, 1952).
A child of any chronological age who is blind or low vision with additional disabilities may still need to build and expand skills within this stage of development to develop more advanced symbolic communication and abstract thinking.
The sensorimotor stage has three main types of skills: attention, exploration, and function (Smith & Chambers, 2023). The skills build upon one another, and each is important in establishing a foundation for concept development, communication, and literacy.
Sensorimotor Stage Skills & Tips for Practice
Attention is a skill demonstrated by consistently attending to a pleasurable person, object, or action. Children who are blind or low vision with additional complexities may have seizures, medicines, or other medical conditions impacting alertness. Attention is a skill that can be taught and strengthened for further learning. Positioning, transitions, and environmental conditions may significantly impact children’s ability to attend.
Tips for Developing Attention Skills
• If your child is often drowsy or fussy, you can work on building attention in a very controlled setting in short spurts of time.
• Reduce auditory distractions when working on attention by limiting background noises and conversation.
• Consider visual accommodations that can help increase their use of visual attention. Accommodations may include wearing a solid-colored shirt or using a toy of only one color. Color contrast and spotlighting with a flashlight may also help promote visual attention.
• Choose an object or activity your child loves. For example, they may love to have their hands massaged with a scented lotion or rocking together on a rocking chair.
• Look for signs of attention – smiles, body movement, or eye movement and see if these periods of attention grow.
• Look for the ways they are communicating and respond accordingly. If you pause with the lotion massage and they grunt for more, continue with more lotion. If you are rocking and they squeal with delight, tell them you understand they like it. If they begin to shut down, respond by stopping or changing the type of activity.
• Consider parts of your daily routine where you can build in small opportunities to build attention. For example, they may be calm and alert after bath time and like drying their fingers and toes with the towel. Look for signs of attention and respond to their efforts to communicate.
Once a child shows the ability to maintain attention, allow opportunities for exploration. Exploration skills involve exploring objects, imitating actions, and demonstrating an understanding of cause and effect. Exploration builds sensory efficiency, concept development, and object perception.
Tips for Developing Exploration Skills
• If your child interacts with objects the same way each time (mouthing or throwing the object, etc.), show them different ways to explore, such as squeezing, banging, shaking, etc.
• Always use hand-under-hand modeling and support so your child can control their exploration.
• Encourage interaction with the object instead of switch-use for cause and effect. Help your child understand what happens when their body interacts with an object.
• Find fun, interesting objects to explore that your child enjoys.
Once a child demonstrates the skills for maintaining attention to an object and initiating exploration, they can learn the object’s use. For example, your child might initially enjoy looking at the colorful red pompom on a winter hat. Next, they might learn to touch, squeeze, and shake it. Next, they can understand that the hat goes on their head when it’s time to go outside. The progression will help your child develop concepts about objects, people, and actions in their world.
Tips for Developing Function Skills
• Consider an everyday object with qualities your child may like. Do they like the loud sounds of the blender or love to splash in water? Use this motivation to teach them their uses. Practice turning on and off the water to fill their glass. Make a morning smoothie together to build a deeper understanding.
• Consider your daily activities and see where you can look for signs of understanding about the objects involved. How does your child show you what they know about objects and their function? Where can you look for ways to teach and build these skills?
• When a child works on function-level skills, this is a helpful time to use a switch for efficiency. Consider working with an occupational therapist to consider what switches may work best for your child.
• Consider using a routine to teach the use of an object in a way that brings meaning and consistency. Watch Freddy’s Hair Routine to see how he learned to explore a brush and use it functionally.
Piaget, J. (1952). The origin of intelligence in children. International University Press.
Smith, M. & Chambers, S. (2023). Sensing and learning: Guidebook, assessment forms, and routines. American Printing House for the Blind.