How does Occupational Therapy help learners?

Occupational Therapists (OTs) are one of the professionals participating in our Early RISErs program. What do they do, and how does this impact preschool to elementary-aged learners? 

OTs work with anyone having difficulty engaging in an occupation. An occupation is not a job but any activity that occupies your time and is important to you. For children, their occupations include self-care, learning, socializing and play. Their work is the critical learning and developmental work they do daily. Regardless of a designation or diagnosis, OTs focus on student’s strengths to help them address challenges in these activities.  

If you have a child struggling with any of these activities, they might benefit from occupational therapy.    

  • Difficulty engaging in lessons or classroom instruction  
  • Fine motor or gross motor concerns, such as printing skills  
  • Sensory concerns  
  • Difficulty socializing with peers or instructors  
  • Difficulty engaging in age-appropriate play (playing alone, unsure how to use toys)  
  • Difficulty completing age-appropriate self-care 

An OT uses various strategies to help students engage in these activities and build skills to learn and grow. They use sensory, motor, emotional, play-based and social strategies. Here are some examples of these strategies in action when OTs work with unique learners.   

OT Strategies in Action

A student with trouble sitting still in class 

  • Consider incorporating movement breaks, such as placing supplies on a window ledge so students must move around to get them.  
  • Consider providing alternate seating, like an exercise ball or wiggle stool.  
  • Consider a chair with back support if the student is constantly slumped over.  
  • Explore a sensory profile with an Occupational Therapist for individualized recommendations.  

A student with challenges following instructions

  • Consider the person, environment, and activity. Is the person calm and alert? Is the environment loud or quiet? Is the activity something the student is motivated to do? Can it be adapted to align with the student’s interests?  
  • Explore different modalities, like writing out the instructions and using visuals or pictures to reinforce the instructions.  
  • Create a rhyme or chant if the student often needs to remember a single step. For example, if students forget to check their work, try: “plan, do, check.” Plan out the math equation, do the math equation, and check your work.  

A student with challenges taking turns

  • Consider the person: Are they emotionally regulated? What is their relationship to the person they are taking turns with?   
  • Consider the environment: Is it distracting or quiet?  
  • Consider other ways to communicate. Try using visual cards of steps for taking turns, visual clocks to denote when your turn is over, use pictures to express wants and ideas such as turn please, my turn, not done yet, etc.  

A student who has messy writing  

  • Consider the desk and chair height. The student should have feet flat on the floor, the table two inches above a bent elbow, and the trunk supported by a chair.  
  • To improve pencil grasp, consider changing the paper’s position, such as placing the page on an inclined 3 Ring binder, using a pencil grip to promote the ideal positioning of fingers on a pencil, and trying different widths and sizes of pens and pencils.  
  • If handwriting is so slow or messy that it severely interferes with learning at school, consider alternatives like keyboarding or voice-to-text modalities.  
  • Explore a handwriting assessment with an OT for individualized recommendations. 

How to Connect with an OT

If you want to connect with an OT, here are some options.   

  • Early Intervention Therapy Program: These programs provide community-based occupational therapy programs, speech therapy programs, and speech-language pathology services across BC. To be eligible for this program, you must meet specific criteria. Contact a public health nurse in your community, your child’s physician, or the Ministry of Children and Family Development office in your community to learn more.  
  • Community Clinics and Hospitals: Many community clinics and hospital units have OT services. If your child is connected to a local hospital or community clinic program, inquire about OT services.  
  • Schools: Many school districts have OTs who provide consults and intervention services. Connect with your child’s school to inquire about OT services.   
  • Private Practices: Many pediatric private practices in British Columbia provide OT services. Private practices may have a specific focus, such as feeding skills, sensory, school-based interventions, etc. 

Funding Options  

  • Extended health benefits: Contact your provider to see what OT services are covered.  
  • At Home Program / School-Aged Therapy Benefit: This funding program supports children and youth with severe disabilities or medical needs in BC. There is a school-aged therapy benefit that can provide funding for services like OT. Learn more and ask your family doctor to help you complete the paperwork.  
  • Diagnosis-based funding: Funding is available based on certain diagnoses. For example, funding is available for children and youth with an Autism diagnosis.  
  • Local Charities: Charity organizations may provide options for support. Some possibilities include Variety BC – The Children’s Charity, CKNW Kids’ Fund, and Jordan’s Principle. 

– Sarina Stein and Crystal Yu, students completing their Master of Occupational Therapy degrees at UBC

LDS is a community of dedicated professionals that write collaboratively. We recognize the contribution of unnamed team members for their wisdom and input.