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What is occupational therapy?

By Gail Belsky

At a Glance

  • Occupational therapy (OT) is a treatment to improve motor skills, balance, and coordination.

  • It helps kids and adults who struggle with everyday tasks like writing or getting dressed.

  • Kids with developmental coordination disorder (DCD) often need OT.

Occupational therapy (OT) is a treatment for problems with movement and coordination. It helps people improve the motor skills involved in everyday tasks, like writing and getting dressed.

These skills include fine and gross motor skills and motor planning. Therapists also work on coordination, balance, and self-regulation skills.

Kids can get OT for free at school. But adults have to find a therapist who works privately. (Doctors can often recommend private occupational therapists). Insurance may or may not cover OT.

The need for OT can come up at any age and for a wide range of reasons. But there are lifelong conditions that impact motor skills starting in early childhood. One of them is developmental coordination disorder (DCD).

While adults with DCD may benefit from OT, it’s most effective with kids. And the earlier OT starts, the better.

Dive deeper

How does OT work?

OT is tailored for each person’s needs. Therapists start by looking at strengths and challenges. Then they create a program of exercises and activities that focus on the motor skills that need improving. For example, activities to build fine motor skills might include picking things up with tweezers. Exercises to improve gross motor skills might include jumping jacks or running an obstacle course.

For someone who struggles with motor planning, therapists might work on daily routines like getting dressed. They help people learn the initial steps and the sequence of tasks that follow.

Many kids who need OT get it for free at school. This service is usually part of a special education plan. OT can happen one-on-one or in small groups.

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How can OT help kids?

For kids, therapy at school might focus on school-related tasks like writing. Private OT might focus more on self-care routines

In either case, being able to do basic tasks can help build up kids’ confidence, which can drop when they are struggling. When kids see improvement it can boost their self-esteem. 

Learn about some of the ways occupational therapists work with kids .

Getting occupational therapy at school

Some kids may qualify for free OT services at school. That usually happens through a special education plan called an IEP.

Students go through an evaluation process that’s also free. The evaluation looks at strengths and challenges in many areas. Occupational therapists do the part that looks at motor skills.

Parents can request an evaluation for their child at any time.

Learn how to request an evaluation . Watch an occupational therapist describe the OT evaluation process .

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What it’s like

“Elijah came with me to his IEP meetings. At first, he would just sit there quietly, taking things in. But by middle school, he began to be more vocal about his needs.”

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom