Unlike other more widely known therapies, occupational therapy (OT) can often be a bit of an unknown, or even misunderstood. For many parents, the first time they hear about OT could be when their child’s teacher raises concerns that their child is falling behind the class. Or maybe they’ve come across it online after researching ways to help their child in areas they’re concerned about.
Put simply, OT helps people of all ages to achieve independence in their daily lives. It does this by improving a person’s “occupations.” This term can sound a little strange when applied to children, but they have occupations just as we have. These are the routine activities they’re required to do on a daily basis. Some common examples include playing, writing, using a knife and fork, kicking a ball and paying attention in class. It’s the job of OT to develop the skills required to perform these types of tasks, which builds a child’s independence and self esteem.
The Different Areas Occupational Therapy Can Help
When it comes to pediatric OT, there are five broad areas where OT can help:
Self-care. Think of these as the vital “little tasks” that your child needs to complete to get through the day. Brushing teeth, combing hair, tying shoelaces or fastening a coat zipper can all seem insignificant when looked at in isolation, but problems with these activities can cause frustrations each morning. OT can build planning and motor skills that help children master these activities, enabling a far greater degree of independence and self reliance.
Social Engagement. A major factor in any person’s emotional well-being is their ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships. Often, a child who has poor body awareness has difficulty understanding their surroundings and peers’ facial expressions. They may have poor physical boundaries with others and may get too close or stand too far from other children. Such children can have a hard time making eye contact and may even have difficulty with expressive and receptive language. An OT can identify if any of these factors are leading to your child’s social difficulties and work with your child to overcome these barriers.
Self-regulation. These are occupations that require attention, focus or engagement with peers. If a child struggles with self-regulation, this can have a significant impact on educational achievement and self-esteem. Common examples are if your child struggles to pay attention during class or to complete schoolwork. OT seeks to identify the problem, which in this case could be sensory processing, then develop therapies that build the required skills to self regulate.
Fine motor skills. Most of our day is taken up by tasks requiring dexterity, and it’s no different for our children. Writing, drawing or using a computer all require fine motor skills. A common problem for many elementary school teachers is that their students can develop these skills at different ages, meaning late developers can fall behind the class. OT can help to build these skills, either at school, home or a therapy center, using a broad range of fun and engaging play-based activities.
Gross motor skills. When children aren’t using their fine motor skills to learn, they’re usually using their gross motor skills to play. Everything from catching a ball to playing tag all require the coordination of the body’s major muscle groups. We develop these skills naturally through practice and repetition, but our increasingly sedentary lifestyles can mean we get fewer opportunities to hone them. OT uses physical play activities, such as slides, ropes and ball pits, which children love to engage with, to build these skills.
How Do I Know If Occupational Therapy Is Right for My Child?
If your child is struggling with any of the above areas of daily life, then occupational therapy could be beneficial. However, you of course first need to be certain that this is the right therapy for your child. A good place to start is by discussing this with your school. They will be able to provide plenty of examples of how OT has helped other students. You can also discuss this with your family doctor, who will be able to provide their professional insights on this.
If after this you feel that occupational therapy could be right for your child, your next step would be to get an initial assessment with an occupational therapist. The therapist will be able to provide a detailed summary of any problems they’ve identified along with how OT can help to improve these.
How Can I Access Occupational Therapy?
For children with special educational needs, occupational therapy services are often provided for free through an IEP. In these cases, schools will provide services either directly using in-school therapists, or by providing consultation services to the teacher. Talk to your school to confirm if coverage is available.
If your child doesn’t qualify for free OT through their school you’ll need to find a private provider. You could ask your family doctor for a referral, or you could search for a therapist near you using the New Jersey Occupational Therapist Association database. Insurance may cover some or all of the costs, but it depends on a number of factors. Read this guide to insurance for occupational therapy for more information: https://therapyplacenj.com/does-insurance-cover-speech-and-occupational-therapy-in-nj/.
Leah Gross, founder and director of occupational therapy at The Therapy Place New Jersey, a New Jersey based provider of occupational and speech therapy. Visit: https://therapyplacenj.com/