When kids go through big transitions, such as starting a new school year, moving to a new house or gearing up for a big trip, their responses to these changes can manifest in myriad ways. They might act more shy than normal, talk less or even too loudly or quickly, have trouble making friends in the classroom, listening to directions or completing schoolwork on time. It may very well just be a period of overwhelm and adjustment to changing stimuli, but in other cases, these could be signs that your child may benefit from pediatric occupational therapy.
What is a pediatric occupational therapist?
Pediatric occupational therapists (OTs) help children reach important developmental milestones as well as develop critical skills to live healthy and meaningful lives. They treat a variety of diagnoses, including autism, ADHD, anxiety, sensory processing disorder and cerebral palsy, as well as children exhibiting delays in social, motor and emotional skills, which we’ve been seeing more of throughout the pandemic.
Children can work with an occupational therapist in a variety of settings, including in your home, at school, an outpatient clinic, in a pediatric setting or even via telehealth with platforms like Kinspire, and there’s a big focus on making it fun. This might look like creating a necklace made out of Cheerios to work on fine motor skills (and a snack for later!), building an obstacle course to work on coordination, or creating a set of sensory bins with rice, shaving cream or beans to support sensory development.
Your pediatrician can help guide you through next steps or a formal diagnosis, but below are a few signs that your child may benefit from occupational therapy.
Does my child need occupational therapy? 4 signs to look for
1. Having a hard time in the classroom
The unpredictability of the last two years throughout the pandemic makes it difficult for anyone to adjust—child or adult—so it may not be surprising if your child is experiencing difficulty adhering to the structure and rules of a classroom.
However, as the school year progresses, continued difficulty following instructions, trouble completing work on time, challenges with sitting still and paying attention, or struggling with visual motor tasks like copying from the whiteboard could point to a larger issue.
2. Delays with fine motor skills
Trouble with handwriting, or difficulty with tasks like opening containers, grasping utensils, or using buttons and zippers could be a sign of delays with fine motor skills.
An occupational therapist, especially in a school-based setting, can address these skills by working to improve hand strength and fine motor control through fun art activities and helping your child gain more independence in completing their morning routines.
3. Trouble making friends
It’s heartbreaking to witness your child feeling left out or lonely at school. If they have difficulty playing with others, often talk too loudly or quickly or have delays in communication, this is something with which an OT can help.
In a pediatric setting, an occupational therapist may role-play short conversations centered around new friends at school. Therapists also have social skills groups, where kids can “practice” playing with other kids with their guidance and supervision.
4. Difficulty with emotion recognition and regulation
Children who are unable to self-soothe when upset, have frequent tantrums that are more than just being overtired, or have trouble expressing their emotions or needs may be experiencing a bigger challenge than adjusting to a new setting.
Occupational therapists can help identify the cause of emotion regulation issues—whether it’s related to sensory overstimulation, inability to communicate emotions and needs, lack of strategies to self-soothe—and help children work on emotional regulation skills by teaching strategies like mindfulness, breathing exercises or employing sensory tools.
Occupational therapists may also recommend or use tools to complement treatment like Moxie, a robot friend that supports emotional, social, and life skills for neurodivergent and neurotypical children ages 5 to 10. Moxie engages children in play-based activities to work on skills like expressing emotion, reading, having conversations and fun physical activities like dancing.
The nonprofit Common Sense is another useful tool that offers recommendations to parents for trusted and helpful resources, technology, and media that is both age-appropriate and secure.
A note from Motherly: Benefits of pediatric occupational therapy
Knowing your child is experiencing difficulties can be heartbreaking, and even overwhelming. Occupational therapists are there to help, and make the progress manageable (which it totally is!) The first step is to see your pediatrician to evaluate whether there’s a need for a formal diagnosis, and they can advise on the best next steps for your family. You’ll get through this together.
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