Occupational Therapy: How to Help Your Child Be More Independent, Confident, & Adaptable
Takeaway: Children have occupations (i.e., daily tasks) which they take pride in doing. And when they need help with these, an occupational therapist can step in to assess the problem and teach them exercises to improve specific skill sets. Practise is vital, so the trick is to make the exercises a part of your child’s daily routine and keep them game-like.
Children have ‘occupations’ which they take pride in. And sometimes they need a bit of support.
These occupations are everyday tasks that they need to do. It could be something advanced like finishing their homework. It could be something simple like getting dressed for school. Or it could be something fun like playing football with friends. Most children are proud of being able to do these things by themselves. So, what happens if they struggle and need support? Well, an occupational therapist can step in to help them develop the right skillsets.
Paediatric occupational therapists (OTs) help children participate in the daily activities they want and need to do.
They offer a range of services to help your child meet her daily challenges. Specifically, they’ll:
- Assess your child’s requirements. What problem needs to be solved? And what skills does your child need to solve it? For example, to finish homework, your child needs to learn how to process information better. To tie her shoes while getting dressed, she needs to learn fine motor skills (i.e., to manipulate her fingers). And to play football, she needs to develop leg-eye coordination.
- Teach techniques and exercises. These could be simple tasks and games to develop key skills. They could also be techniques that you as a parent can use.
- Change the environment, if needed. For example, an OT can help teachers reorganise the classroom’s seating plan to make it easier for your child to focus.
- Provide tools and equipment. OTs can provide specialist equipment like wheelchairs, specialised bathing equipment, communication aids, and adapted cutlery/scissors.
- Help build confidence. As your child gets better at her occupational tasks, she’ll slowly get more independent, confident, and adaptable.
OTs need to be patient, creative, and evidence-based in their approach.
OTs are usually called in to solve a specific problem. For example, a teacher might notice that your child’s handwriting is particularly hard to read. But there’s more to it than just the illegible handwriting. Does your child have problems in other areas of her life, too? Can she see well? Is she physically okay? What’s she like at home? What’s she like at school? Each of these factors adds layers to the challenge, and the OT needs the patience to assess the problem thoroughly. So, perhaps the handwriting issue can be solved with some simple writing exercises. But what if the best solution is to have your child type out her homework on a computer, instead? OT problem-solving involves coming up with a solution, testing it, and tweaking the solution based on the results. It’s a systematic and evidence-based approach. But it’s a creative one, too.
So, what are some of the challenges occupational therapists work with?
Children usually need help in these broad categories.
- Developmental delays. Some children take longer than usual to sit, crawl, walk, etc.
- Gross motor skills (i.e., problems with movement, strength, and balance). To move around and play, a child needs to learn to coordinate different parts of her body. Children who struggle with this might find it hard to climb stairs, throw a ball, run, or jump. They might also have poor posture.
- Fine motor skills (i.e., moving fingers, toes, lips, tongue, etc.). Some children have problems holding pencils, using scissors, playing with toys, writing, etc.
- Processing sensory information. Some children’s brains have problems processing sensory stimuli. This might make them oversensitive to the things around them. They might easily get distracted by noises outside the classroom, might not like being hugged, might avoid sand or messy play, might find it hard to calm themselves when upset, etc.
- Social skills. Some children struggle with social interaction. They might find it hard to make friends or settle into class.
- Some children have learning differences and struggle with traditional teaching styles. So, they might find it hard to keep up with schoolwork, follow instructions, or learn new material.
- Games play a big part in a child’s development. But some children don’t play often enough, might move quickly from one game to another, or might play repetitively (e.g., lining up toys) for hours.
- Self-care. Some children struggle to dress up, eat, or use the toilet. They might have problems buttoning up clothes, for example. Or using a knife and fork. Or opening/closing taps to wash their hands.
What are some exercises a therapist might suggest?
Children learn best through play, so OTs try to make the exercises as interesting or game-like as possible. For example,
- To help with buttoning up clothes, your child could start by practising a threading task — to learn the concept of pushing a button through a hole. Then she could practise fastening buttons on clothes laid out in front of her. You’d give her larger, flat buttons and then progress onto smaller ones.
- For putting on socks, you might practice the movements using a hairband: While sitting, you’d encourage her to place her foot through the hairband so that it fits around her ankle
- For better sleep, she could practise a ‘calm down’ routine before going to bed. For example, drinking a hot milky drink, having a warm relaxing bath, changing into pyjamas, reading, etc.
- To improve hand-eye coordination, she could practise joining dots. You’d start her off joining them randomly and then teach her to join them in a pattern.
- To help learn alphabets, she could form letters with her finger in shaving foam, sand, paint, etc.
- To develop hand strength, she could scrunch up two pieces of scrap paper using one hand for each piece. And then ‘flick’ the balls into a nearby bin.
- To develop visual skills, she could use activity books like Where’s Wally.
The trick is to build therapy into your child’s daily routine.
As adults, we’re comfortable learning a skill and applying it to different parts of our lives. Children (young children, especially) are different. They don’t generalise skills from one setting to another. Rather, they need to learn and practise a skill as part of the routine in which they will use it. For example, if your child needs help with her fine motor skills (e.g., grasping things), an OT will help you identify daily occupations where this skill can be practised. Perhaps when pressing buttons on the TV remote? Or playing with large toy blocks?
That’s why you’re such an essential part of the process.
Practise and repetition are vital. And you spend more time with your child than your therapist does. [Plus, she responds best to your praise.] So, you’re a huge part of the therapy, and it needs to be tailored to your family’s unique needs. Remember, the more encouraging and supportive you all are, the more excited your child will be to experiment and learn.
Want to find out more about occupational therapy? Or talk to an occupational therapist?
The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges.
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