Occupational therapy (OT) may sound like it involves finding a job or developing work skills, but it actually deals with strengthening fine motor skills.1 These skills include tasks like writing, using scissors, tying shoes, and using utensils. OT is commonly used in children's special education programs.
For adults recovering from an accident or stroke, OT may indeed include work-related skills. But for children, whose "occupation" is school and play, therapy focuses more sharply on developmental milestones and skills required for the playground and academic activities.
Occupational therapists working with children typically use techniques and routines that seem like play. In reality, they are designed to target areas of delay and difficulty. Some occupational therapists also are trained in therapy with a sensory integration approach. This method uses play-like activities to help children better process and tolerate the information they get through their senses.2
OT and Special Education
OT is a supportive service provided to help students with disabilities benefit from special education. If your child qualifies for special education, then they may be eligible for OT, but eligibility isn't automatic.3 This determination is made by a team of people involved in your child's special education.
That said, OT is commonly offered to children in early intervention and special education. Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or Individualized Family Services Plans (IFSPs) will outline the amount of time your child will spend in OT and where it will be delivered. Your child's occupational therapist should be part of your IEP team and attend any meetings in which that document is discussed and planned.
The goal of OT is to equip your child with the skills needed to function in the educational environment.3 As a result, your child's educational goals should be considered when developing an OT plan. Occupational therapists use various evaluation tools and techniques to guide their intervention.
How Parents Can Get Involved
When your child enters an OT program, it's best to have a full understanding of what is involved. This information empowers you to help in any way possible and to ensure they are receiving the therapy that is most beneficial.
If you want more information or would like to see the program in action, you can arrange to observe one of your child's OT sessions. While there, ask questions and make sure the goals of the IEP are being addressed, sessions are being accommodated consistently, and the therapy space is conducive to good work.
A school occupational therapist also can be very helpful in addressing problems in the classroom. They can recommend things like special writing utensils, seating solutions to keep your child from fidgeting, or weighted items to help them remain calm and focus.
Try to maintain good communication with your child's occupational therapist so that you are aware of how your child is doing. You also may want to ask about any problems you need advice on at home. Additionally, you can find out if there's any work you could do with your child to further the OT goals. The exercises often look like games to kids and may be a good way to sneak some substance into your playtime.
A Word From Verywell
While some parents may be cautious about intervening with the work their child's teachers, therapists, and case managers are doing, your involvement can benefit your child if approached properly. The IEP team, including the occupational therapist, will create strategies, but as the parent, your questions and requests can help facilitate those connections.
After all, you are the best advocate for your child's education and development. So, don't hesitate to ask for clarification or make suggestions. Being involved allows you to take an active role in your child's education and ensure your child is getting the services and support they need.