Occupational therapy, or OT, can help people of all ages do the activities of daily living (ADLs) they struggle to do. Occupational therapy for children can lead to big benefits, especially for kids with learning and attention issues.
OT can help kids who struggle with everyday fine and gross motor tasks like using a toothbrush, writing on a chalkboard and organizing a backpack. It can also help kids who struggle with self-regulation and sensory processing issues.
Here’s what you need to know about occupational therapy.
What Is Occupational Therapy
OT uses exercises, activities, strategies and accommodations to help kids develop the skills they need to become more independent.
If you’ve noticed that your child is missing certain developmental milestones, OT could help. Occupational therapists can work with kids on many different types of activities. Here are some examples:
- Self-care or activities of daily living (brushing teeth, buttoning clothes, using eating utensils)
- Hand-eye coordination (writing on a classroom whiteboard, copying in a notebook what the teacher writes on the board)
- Fine motor skills (grasping and controlling a pencil, using scissors)
- Gross motor skills (doing jumping jacks, working on core muscle strength for sitting posture)
- Planning and organization (helping a teen plan a trip to his locker to swap books or gym clothes for the next class period, using a graphic organizer for writing)
- Sensory responses (helping kids with sensory processing issues respond to sensory input in more comfortable ways)
There are lots of benefits of OT for children. And the sooner a child starts OT, the more effective it tends to be. Some kids learn to concentrate better and complete their schoolwork with more success. Others have increased self-confidence as they learn to do more tasks on their own.
Examples of Occupational Therapy Activities
An occupational therapist, also called an OT, looks at your child’s strengths and areas of weakness. From there the therapist can create a program of activities for your child to work on. They’ll address things like strength, focus, coordination, sensory reactions and organization.
For example, if your child struggles with focus, an OT may ask him to do full-body exercises before he does his schoolwork. Yoga or animal poses and trampoline-play can help kids exert just enough energy to then be able to sit at a table for class.
If your child has handwriting issues, an OT may use multisensory techniques to help. For instance, your child might trace a letter in sandpaper or form letters with a finger in shaving cream. Kids might also use a tracing app on a tablet with a stylus.
How OT Can Help Kids With Learning and Attention Issues
If your child has certain learning and attention issues, OT may be a good option. It can help kids become more independent and better at completing tasks. This is especially true for young children.
Occupational therapists can help kids who struggle with fine and gross motor skills, like kids with dyspraxia.
- To practice fine motor skills, kids may pick up items with tweezers to help build strength and control. They may cut out things with scissors to help with hand-dominance issues.
- To build gross motor skills like balance and coordination, kids may do jumping jacks, catch balls of different sizes or run obstacle courses.
Learn more about how occupational therapists work with kids with dyspraxia.
OT can also be a big help for kids with sensory processing issues. Some kids with sensory issues overreact to outside stimulation and become overwhelmed and hyperactive. Others are underreactive and seek out sensory stimulation.
If your child has these challenges, an OT might design a sensory diet. This carefully designed plan is a series of physical activities and accommodations tailored to give each child the sensory input he needs. Therapists may also use heavy work to help kids who seek or avoid certain kinds of sensory input.
Occupational therapy may also help kids with other learning and attention issues like dyslexia, visual processing issues, executive functioning issues and dysgraphia.
How to Find an Occupational Therapist for Your Child
Some kids may qualify for free OT services at school through an IEP. To see if your child qualifies, you can request an evaluation at any time. Testing will show how your child’s struggles are affecting his academic skills and whether OT services would help. (Learn more about evaluations.)
Some kids with an IEP may qualify to receive direct OT services. Direct services means a therapist would work with your child in a small group setting or individually, depending on what the IEP team thinks is necessary.
Therapists may also provide consultation-only services, which means they give suggestions to the teacher rather than working directly with kids.
Kids who aren’t eligible for an IEP may qualify for a 504 plan instead. While it depends on your school district, it’s unlikely for kids to receive direct services with an OT through a 504 plan.
If your child isn’t eligible for OT services through the school, you’ll need to connect with your child’s pediatrician. The pediatrician can give a referral to a therapist who can provide services in a clinic or in your home, depending on your child’s needs. You (or your insurance) would have to pay for services from that therapist. If you have insurance, you can call your insurance company to ask for a list of preferred providers.
Short-term services, or outpatient services, may be a good option for kids who just need to improve one or a few specific skills. In this case, kids would work with a therapist for a few months (or a predetermined number of visits). From there you’d have to reapply with your health insurance provider to continue the therapy.
Keep in mind that kids who get services at school can get services from a private therapist outside of school, too—and vice versa.
The earlier your child starts occupational therapy, the better. But occupational therapy is just one option for addressing your child’s learning and attention issues. Read about treatment options for various issues. And discover fun ways to build fine motor skills and gross motor skills.