Learn About Occupational Therapy for Kids, and Find Out if it’s the Right Fit

advocacy kids parenting resources support Jan 23, 2024
Occupational Therapy for Children

Pediatric occupational therapy has been trending in recent years thanks to increased awareness. This form of treatment has proven itself to be a helpful way to teach and support children with many different difficulties and diagnoses to complete age-appropriate tasks. 

What is Occupational Therapy?

When you hear “occupation,” your first thought may go to your job. You then may wonder what occupational therapy even is and how it can be beneficial to kids who don’t work 9-5. 

“Occupation” can also refer to everyday activities. For children, this includes play, self-care tasks like bathing and dressing, and schoolwork. Occupational therapy for kids, then, is a form of treatment to help children perform these tasks and activities. 

Various factors can inhibit children’s performance in these areas. In pediatric occupational therapy (OT), the occupational therapist works with kids to either develop, recover, or maintain the skills they need to successfully do their everyday tasks.

Occupational therapy can benefit children in these areas:

Gross motor skills and coordination

Most physical activities require us to move large parts of our body, like our arms and legs, in a coordinated manner. This requires strength and balance. All of these things tie back into gross motor skill development.

Fine motor skills 

The opposite of gross motor skills, fine motor skills are those small, controlled movements done by our hands, feet, mouths, and more. Without developing these skills, tasks such as writing, tying shoelaces, and even eating can be difficult or impossible.

Developmental delays

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) set developmental milestones and recently revised them with the assistance of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “Developmental milestones identify the behaviors that 75% or more of children can be expected to exhibit at a certain age based on data, developmental resources and clinician experience.” These milestones act as guidelines to help parents, caregivers, and pediatricians know whether a child is developmentally healthy. If a child isn’t meeting these milestones or is behind in skills development, OT can help them catch up.

Social interaction skills

The ability to bond with others and build relationships requires social interaction skills. When a child struggles with language, conversation, and adapting to social situations, they will likely also have difficulties in their interactions and relationships.  

Sensory processing

Sensitivity (or lack thereof) to smells, sights, tastes, sounds, and touch can make it difficult for children to process this sensory information. Strong reactions to sensory input can lead to dysregulation and emotional outbursts. 

Self-care skills

Much of self-care is tied up in gross and fine motor skills and censoring processing issues. Developing skills such as zipping up jackets and learning to manage sensory input through OT can help children gain independence.

How to Know if Your Child Needs Occupational Therapy

Not sure if your child might qualify for OT? The first step is to take an audit of any challenges or developmental delays they are experiencing. As you begin your evaluation, here’s a checklist of some signs and cues adapted from the University of Utah Health you can look out for in your infant to elementary-aged child to help you determine whether OT is the right path. (For infants and toddlers, be sure to refer to the CDC’s developmental milestones, as some of these signs could be age-appropriate.)

Motor skills

  • Do they struggle to understand the concept of right and left?
  • Do they have poor balance?
  • Do they struggle to coordinate movement on both sides of their body?
  • Do they struggle to manipulate toys and puzzles?
  • Do they have trouble holding a pencil? Do they have poor handwriting?
  • Is using scissors difficult for them?
  • Are they unable to button and zip their clothes and tie their shoelaces?

Visual processing

  • Are the letters they write unevenly spaced and of various sizes?
  • Do they struggle to recognize letters?
  • Are they unable to copy shapes and letters easily? Can they copy from the board at school?

Oral motor/oral sensory 

  • Does your child drool excessively?
  • Does your infant have lengthy breast- or bottle-feedings?
  • Is your child a picky eater, limited to certain foods or food textures?
  • Did your child mouth toys or objects longer than what is considered age-appropriate?

Sensory processing 

  • Is your child overly sensitive or reactive to certain sounds, touch, or movements?
  • Is your child constantly on the move?
  • Does your child constantly crash or bump into things?
  • Is your child emotionally reactive?
  • Does your child struggle to cope with transitions and other changes?
  • Does your child have trouble calming him/herself down when upset?

Social interaction 

  • Is your child’s language skills delayed compared to same-age peers?
  • Does your child struggle to adapt to new environments compared to same-age peers?
  • Does your child struggle in the school setting compared to same-age peers?
  • Does your child have difficulty interacting socially compared to same-age peers?

Learning or play challenges 

  • Is your child unable to concentrate at school?
  • Does your child have difficulty following instructions?
  • Does your child struggle to control their impulses?
  • Does your child quickly move from one activity to another?
  • Does your child have difficulty with imitative play?
  • Does your child not understand the concepts of sharing or taking turns?

If you observed many of these signs or cues in your child, keep thorough notes to share with your child’s pediatrician, school diagnostician, or a potential pediatric occupational therapist. 

Why Has Public Awareness of Occupational Therapy for Kids Increased?

Over the past 50 years, occupational therapy for kids has undergone significant evolution. Early practices focused primarily on addressing physical disabilities. Today’s approach encompasses a more holistic perspective that considers cognitive, emotional, and social aspects. There's been a shift towards family-centered care, recognizing the crucial role parents play in a child's development. 

This evolution and wider application have created more awareness around occupational therapy, and recent challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have brought it into the mainstream.

During the pandemic, many infants and young children were kept out of daycare facilities. Without structured care, teaching, and peer interaction, children’s motor, social, and emotional regulation skills have declined. The regression of emotional regulation skills is correlated with childhood trauma and the loss of peer experiences during the pandemic.

Additionally, children who demonstrated certain skills pre-pandemic experienced a pause in their development during the pandemic; though they were getting older, they were not demonstrating age-appropriate progression. Now as many of these children are beginning kindergarten or experiencing early elementary grades in-person after starting virtually, their pause in skill development is really coming to light. We predict there will be much interest and research into this, which we look forward to reading and sharing with you. 

Given the effects the pandemic has had on children and occupational therapy’s evolution, it has become an even more needed and valuable support for families. One application that has grown in importance is social-emotional learning. Occupational therapy for kids increasingly integrates sensory processing support to help with emotional regulation so they become more self-aware and able to address their needs. 

What Parents Need to Know About Occupational Therapy for Kids

Before your child begins occupational therapy, there are things you as the parent or caregiver need to understand. 

Firstly, the purpose of occupational therapy is to teach your child a skill. As with any other new skill, your child must practice what they learn in OT. The Parent Coaches at The Foster Lane can help you understand the skill your child is learning and guide you in supporting your child at home with additional practice. 

Secondly, if your child is given a “sensory diet,” it needs to be adhered to at home, and not just in the clinical or classroom setting. Just as someone with special dietary needs has to incorporate some foods and avoid others to feel their best, so too do children with sensory needs have to incorporate or inhibit sensory inputs to regulate their emotions.

As they do with other skills, occupational therapists tailor sensory diets to their patients. Why? The inputs a child may need more or less of will vary because each person is unique. The sensory diet also helps parents, caregivers, and even teachers know what types of activities or sensory inputs will work best to up-regulate the child’s nervous system when they’re feeling sluggish or downregulate it when they’re feeling overly activated.  

For children who need it, a consistent sensory diet is a critical component of their care plan. When you, the parent or caregiver, know your child’s sensory and emotional regulation needs, you can take steps to add or avoid inputs. If you also work with a Children’s Long-Term Support Program, share your child’s sensory diet with those providers; they may purchase input tools recommended by the OT so your child can continue their diet

If you’re interested in assessing your child’s sensory needs and the inputs that could improve their sensory diet, there are online resources that can help. For younger children, here’s an assessment you as the parent or caregiver can use. For older children, here’s a self-assessment they can work through themselves.

How Can The Foster Lane Help?

If you feel like pediatric occupational therapy could help your child, we outline the steps you should take to find, assess, and engage an occupational therapist in this blog. When seeking out an OT, remember that they too have specializations as other doctors do; look for an occupational therapist who specializes in working with children. Remember that you don’t have to stick with the first pediatric OT you find. It’s important to understand their therapeutic approach and ensure it aligns with you and your child’s needs.

It's possible for your child to receive occupational therapy services through their public school. As you work with your child’s school to have them evaluated for Special Education or 504 services, we recommend that you have an advocate to guide you through the process. Just as you wouldn’t go into a legal proceeding without a lawyer, don’t go into an IEP or 504 planning session without an advocate. We suggest you refer to SEA Group as subject-matter experts in advocating for accommodations in school.

Get support implementing OT learning at home: https://www.thefosterlane.com/site/contact.

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