How Occupational Therapists Can Support Your Classroom

Categories: Resources

When I meet someone new and tell them my job title, I often get different reactions.  Sometimes the person knows exactly what an occupational therapist is, but more often than not, I am met with a confused look.  To be honest, when I was in college, I didn’t even know what OT was until I experienced it myself in my role as a respite worker.  As we enter a new school year, you will likely work with an OT in some capacity.  You may already be working with a fabulous therapist and have a good understanding of how OT can support you.  However, if you are like me back in the day and have no idea what OT does or how we can help, fear not!  This blog post is for you.

What is Occupational Therapy?

The name occupational therapy itself can be confusing – often people associate the word ‘occupation’ with a job/employment. Instead, think about the word occupation as any activity that someone might want or need to do during their day. For young kids, their main occupation is often play.  As kids grow up, they begin to engage in additional occupations such as self care, rec/leisure activities, schoolwork and yes, even vocational training!  If a student is having difficulty participating in any of their daily occupations, we can help.

How exactly do we do that?  OTs are all about independence!  We should really be called the independence therapists.  We are experts in task analysis.  We can look at a task, break it down into smaller parts, and identify what is getting in the way of the student completing the task independently.  Then, once we have identified the breakdown, we work to increase the student’s overall independence! We can do this in a variety of ways.  We may adapt or modify a task.  We may work directly on the underlying skill that hasn’t yet developed.  We also carefully consider environmental factors and the impact they can have.


Types of OT Services in the School

There are many different ways an OT can provide services, depending on the situation.  Disclaimer: this may look slightly different depending on where you work, but this has been my experience:

  • Direct therapy.  This can be integrated in the classroom (push in) or may be outside of the classroom (pull out).  Direct therapy may occur individually or in a group.  The student has a specific goal and the therapist works directly on the goal with a student for a specific amount of time (minutes) that is listed in the IEP.
  • Consultation.  Consultation can happen in so many ways.  The IEP team identified that the student can benefit from OT support for a specific goal, but that support doesn’t necessarily have to happen in a direct therapy session.  Consultation may involve performing observations, offering strategies, or problem solving specific situations.  There are specific minutes attached to this type of service.
  • Support to School Personnel (SSP).  OT can be listed in this section of the IEP, meaning the therapist can be available to support the team as needed.  There are not specific goals or minutes attached to this type of service, but the therapist is still part of the IEP team and attends meetings.
  • RTI/MTSS.  This is often a building wide, tiered initiative that OTs can be involved in.  Students may receive targeted interventions before moving to a full IEP evaluation.
  • Screenings.  OTs can perform brief screenings for students of all ages to determine if a further evaluation is recommended.
  • Evaluations.  OTs can perform initial evaluations as part of a full evaluation for a new IEP, or just an initial evaluation to add OT services onto an existing IEP.  Additionally, OTs participate in the three year reevaluation process for any student who currently has OT services on an IEP.
  • 504 plans.  For students who receive support via a 504 plans, OT may be involved.
  • Training and Education.  OTs can provide training to staff members and families on a wide variety of topics (see the bottom of the blog post!).


What skills can an OT work on in school?

OTs can work on so many skills! Pediatric OTs also work in hospitals, outpatient therapy centers or even in the home environment, and the focus of therapy in all of these environments may be slightly different. In the schools, we focus on the skills students need to be successful in order to perform their school related occupations. Now, just because I have listed a skill here doesn’t mean an OT alone can fully address it.  That being said, if you have concerns in these areas, reach out to your OT!

  • Fine motor skills. These skills are important for so many school tasks such as opening and closing lunch containers, grasping a pencil, buttoning a shirt, using learning manipulatives, and turning the pages of a book.  Check out this post for more info!
  • Visual perception and visual motor skills.  These are important for looking at the board, reading, handwriting and typing.
  • Executive functioning skills.  These can include organization, time management, self regulation, attention and persistence to tasks.
  • Postural control, which includes core and shoulder strength. This can impact a student’s ability to sit upright at his desk, play efficiently on the floor, and have legible handwriting.  Check out this post for more info!
  • Using two hands together (bilateral coordination) and motor planning.  These skills are important for school activities such as playing on the playground, carrying a lunch tray, zipping a jacket, participating in multistep PE activities.  Click here and here for more info!
  • School related self care skills.  In school, students have to perform self care routines such as arrival/departure, hand hygiene, toileting, putting on/taking off a coat/hat/gloves, and possibly changing for PE class.  OTs can support the student participating as independently as possibly in these routines.
  • Sensory processing.   Most people working in a school associate OT with sensory.  Here is a link to my whole sensory series where you can read more about sensory processing skills and how they can impact participation in various tasks.
  • Social interaction, recreation and leisure skills.  These are important for working in groups, building relationships and empowering students to participate in activities they like especially as they get older.  Having a class party, field trip or community outing?  Invite your OT!  We love getting an opportunity to work on these skills in the natural environment.

OTs make EVERY day independence day!

I don’t remember where exactly I heard this phrase first, but it became the motto of my grad school classmates and I still love it to this day- OTs make EVERY day independence day!   We love to problem solve and be creative.  We love to educate and empower.  There is nothing that makes us happier than seeing a student successfully participating in school activities as independently as possible.  I am obviously biased, but I think being an OT is the best!  We are so lucky to have the opportunity to work with amazing parents, students, teachers and staff members to make a meaningful difference.

How does your OT support you?  Did you learn something new from this post?  Drop a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!




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