In the past, occupational therapists have worked predominantly with young children to assist them with fine motor skills. They often spent a lot of time in sessions perfecting pincer grasp, writing letters, and other goals for early elementary-aged children. While occupational therapists may still do these with their students, their role has changed drastically in recent years.
Occupational therapy professionals now work as a member of a team that helps students maximize their performance during the academic day and beyond. They support children within all classrooms while helping to identify those who are at-risk and those who have already been identified as requiring special education. Occupational therapists support educators in working toward yearly progress and growth in learning.
As the needs of students have changed, the occupational goals also have started to look very different within schools. Occupational therapists are able to look at items that may be hindering a child’s occupational performance. This may include physical concerns, developmental delays, sensory problems, lack of attention, and additional learning challenges. Occupational therapy will work with all of these to improve how students are able to get work done, stay on task, and be successful within the classroom setting.
By observing children within a classroom, occupational therapists will be able to come up with strategies and tools to help teachers to maximize student participation. They can suggest placement of desk within an environment and give children special cushions to sit on that may help them to focus more thanks to their need for sensory input. In addition to this, they may suggest the need for assistive technology for student support; this could be a tablet to make it easier for a child that has writing anxiety or trouble using a traditional pen. For students who may have more challenges, occupational therapists may also help with alternative assessments to use and to come up with goals for students when they graduate from school.
Overall, the scope of what an occupational therapist does within a school is constantly changing. When working in a school, occupational therapists need to be in touch with all team members to utilize their knowledge within academic classrooms, special areas, and their own sessions. The more they are able to tweak some of the environments for children, the more likely we are to see their potential shine through.