How OT Makes Life Easier for Your Child


A mom recently emailed me and bravely asked:  “What sort of learning disabilities benefit from OT?  I think that’s a stupid question since I think anyone and everyone with a body could use OT….but I also think that it would help me better understand OT and human minds and bodies.” 
Not a stupid question at all.  I loved it.  A curious, HONEST question!
Here’s another way to say it more bluntly:


Parents, have you asked this question too?  
You’re not alone.  Very few people know what pediatric OT is, and even fewer truly understand the depth and breadth of the work we do with children.  It is like a somewhat-taboo but internal "frequently asked question" that parents have, but are sometimes embarassed to ask while seeking the advice of an OT to help their child: "What exactly is OT for children?"

No need to be shy.  Ask away!

Here’s my honest and straightforward answer:



So why the word "occupation"?  Your child’s daily life “occupations” include taking care of self and others, participating at school, in home and community life, and of course, the best childhood pastime of all: PLAYING! 
Pediatric occupational therapists are holistic whole-child development specialists. Our job is to help analyze your child’s skills, their environment, and their daily tasks…and find exactly where the problems are that get in the way of your child playing, participating, and learning.
It might go something like this:
A parent calls me and explains the challenges their son Sam is having in 1st grade.
“Sam just won’t sit still during circle time in the classroom.  The school calls me several times a week because he’s hit someone or lashed out, or had a meltdown.  He has trouble following directions at school.  And at home he won’t sit at the dinner table to eat.  He’s constantly- always- moving!  Running around the house, jumping off the couch- it’s driving me crazy at home too.  Trying to sit down to do homework is impossible.”
Or maybe it is a totally different story, like Kayla’s parents share:
“She is so lethargic, and doesn’t like to play with friends.  She prefers to be by herself and avoids playgrounds.  At school her teacher says she needs a lot of prompting to start her work and needs directions repeated all the time.  She totally avoids writing and resists us when we try to help.”
To figure out what is going on with Sam, Kayla, or with your child, the OT would complete an OT assessment.  Assessment involves testing, observations, interviews, and most importantly, getting to know your family and your child’s needs, and your unique hopes and dreams for outcomes that may be possible with occupational therapy.
Pediatric OTs assess children’s skills in the following areas: 


Gross Motor Skills- how your child moves their body in large-motor tasks such as running, jumping, and climbing.


Fine Motor Skills- how your child uses their hands and fingers in small-motor tasks such as using a pencil or cutting with scissors.


Self-Help Skills- how your child completes daily tasks (such as eating, brushing teeth, managing belongings) to take care of themselves.


Visual Perceptual Skills- how your child interprets and processes visual information. 


Social/Play Skills- how your child interacts with peers and other people in both structured and unstructured play settings.

Executive Function & Self-Regulation- how your child plans, attends to, and executes goal-directed activities, and regulates emotions.  Here’s a great explanation of EF & self-regulation from Harvard University:  


Sensory Processing- how your child notices and responds to sensory input. Some children are under- or over-responsive to sensory input, which can negatively impact their attention, learning, and/or mood.  
Did you know your child has EIGHT senses?

  1. Visual

  2. Auditory

  3. Smell

  4. Taste

  5. Tactile (Touch)

  6. Vestibular (Balance & Movement)

  7. Proprioception (Body Awareness & Control) 

  8. Interoception (Awareness of Internal Organs and Systems)

After assessment, the OT will interpret the data to identify the underlying reasons your child may be having difficulties in daily life.
To use our children’s stories from above--
Sam might have underlying sensory processing issues that impact his ability to sit, attend, and learn.  His play and social skills may be lacking.  He may have difficulty developing a plan for goal-directed activities.  He may have visual perceptual issues that make him feel confused and overwhelmed during school.
Kayla may have weak core strength and poor fine motor skills, making school feel like an uphill battle for her.  She might need extra sensory input to activate her attention and energy to play.  She may have challenges with balance and movement that make her hesitant to climb or explore outside.  She also might have visual perceptual challenges that cause her to “check-out” when at school.
Does any of this sound familiar? What do you think about your own child?
If OT services are recommended after assessment, specific goals should be written in collaboration with you, to direct OT treatment toward outcomes that really matter to you and your child.  The goals should state exactly what OT treatment is aiming to change in your child’s everyday life experiences, to help reach our main goal to: HELP MAKE LIFE EASIER!                                             

To do this, the OT will use evidence-based interventions as much as possible during treatment sessions.  This means the OT will use a variety of strategies that have been proven in research or tested by expert therapists to be effective.  Personally, I am a big proponent of evidence-based practice; I believe when you as a parent are paying a lot of your hard-earned money for professional OT services, your OT should use proven and effective techniques in therapy sessions.  When your OT uses experimental therapy techniques, they should be clear with you about the emerging (or lack of) clear scientific evidence for those techniques.  Your OT should also refer you to other specialists if your child’s underlying challenges are honestly best addressed by a different professional’s area of expertise. (For example, a mental health counselor for mental health needs, or a learning specialist or educational therapist for academic needs.)
So returning to the original question posed by the honest mom, asking about OT…

Pediatric occupational therapists assess and treat a child’s underlying challenges that are the foundation for efficient learning and participation in daily life.  We help children build their mind-body connection to help their brains work more effectively for learning. 
Leave your comments and questions below!  I want to know: What has your experience been with OT for your child?

TipsLaura Figueroa