What is Occupational Therapy (OT) for children?
An Occupational Therapist (OT) is trained at the university level to help people become more independent and overcome any difficulties that may be related to their medical diagnosis or disability. Generally, OT can help build independence in two different ways:
- Helping the person to develop skills to be able to complete a variety of daily activities
- Modifying the person’s physical environment or prescribing equipment to make it easier for them to perform their daily tasks
While it is not necessary for someone to have a medical condition or disability to obtain OT, it is more common for people with a health condition. For some children, they may display signs that they are struggling in certain areas from a young age. For example, a child may exhibit delays in fine or gross motor skills, or difficulty regulating emotions, attention or behaviours. Often, the child’s parents or carers may notice that they are engaging or developing differently to other children of similar age. Thus, an OT may be consulted to try to help the child improve in these areas. Some children will grow out of these problems and naturally improve as they get older. For others, issues recognised in early childhood may indicate an underlying medical issue. While an OT cannot diagnose medical conditions, as a health professional, they can often guide parents and refer to other appropriate professionals or services (e.g., doctors). Some children may have physical disabilities or injuries that would benefit from OT. Children with congenital disorders such as cerebral palsy or spina bifida often engage in OT for equipment or other assistive technology.
What are some unknown benefits of OT for children?
Often, when people think of OT, they commonly think of getting help with fine motor skills, home modifications or equipment prescription. While these are some of the most prevalent ways people engage in OT, we will now explore more unfamiliar uses of OT for children.
- Improving executive functioning skills:
These skills involve the areas of self-regulation (controlling thoughts, emotions, actions), time management, attention, planning, organization, coping skills (ability to adapt to change and new situations). Children with disorders such as autism, behavioural difficulties, ADHD, or intellectual delays often have problems in these areas. The approach that OT assumes is to break tasks down into simpler, step-by-step parts; utilizing tools and visual aids (e.g., organizers, alarms, smart devices, computers); and developing a routines, schedules and checklists. For example, a child struggle to concentrate and complete homework. An OT may visit their home and organize their space to be more conducive to studying (e.g., minimizing distractions, noise); introduce a specific routine utilising alarms (e.g., spend 10 minutes on one subject then move onto something else); and working with the child to evolve concentration and organization skills.
- Expanding tolerances to food and feeding habits
Some children have difficulties in safely chewing and swallowing food, decreased motor awareness, have sensory issues, or have problems with the process/sequencing of feeding. In many cases, children who have issues with feeding or trying new foods do not have an underlying clinical condition. OTs can help expand a child’s diet and decrease aversions to trying unfamiliar types of foods. The manner in which the OT approaches this depends on the reason behind the child’s difficulties.
For example, when working with a child with a very limited dietary repertoire, the OT will explore different ways to make them feel more comfortable interacting with new types of foods. This often initially involves teaching the child to look, touch, smell or prepare the food before eating it. OTs commonly play with various food textures, temperatures, colours to allow the child to test and explore unfamiliar experiences.
- Enhancing sleep quality
Children sometimes have trouble settling down and properly sleeping throughout the night. This can regularly cause them to be tired during the day, affecting their performance and engagement at school. The OT can work with the family to develop a routine for the child, as having a schedule structures the child’s day better, as well as preparing their body to wind down for bed. OT will commonly incorporate activities such as baths, massage, and using sensory items and changing the environment for sleep (e.g. using certain smells, reducing lights and sounds) into the child’s pre-sleep routine.
- Working closely with the child’s family
Depending on the child’s age, parents and carers are usually heavily involved in OT engagement and sessions. It is important to note that the OT will typically have 1-hour weekly sessions with the child, while parents and the child’s family are with them all the time. Therefore, for therapy to have the greatest benefit, the skills and strategies taught during sessions must be consolidated into the child’s daily life. Common examples of this are parents giving their children more opportunities to practice social or motor skills (e.g. by enrolling them in regular sport or other extracurricular activity), engaging them in more tasks or chores at home (e.g. preparing meals) to build their life skills, and amending their routines or environment to better support the child’s needs. The younger the child, the greater involvement parents/family will likely need to have. Further, OT also involves providing education for the family, as well as help guide them or connect to other services.
- Develop social skills and build positive behaviours
A child’s emotional and social development are closely tied together, thereby influencing their ability to engage with others and forge relationships as they get older. Often, people associate emotional, behavioural, and social skills with psychology, however OTs also work with children to improve in these areas. Behavioural and social issues can be common in children with autism, intellectual or developmental delay, or ADHD. OT applies emotional regulation strategies to help the child and their family to better control their actions and behaviours. A system known as the ‘Zones of regulation’ is commonly taught to children and their parents to help them identify, understand, communicate, and act on their emotions to then regulate their actions and behaviours better. Often, the OT will teach the child about these concepts through play therapy and games.