Occupational Therapy: What You Need to Know

By The Understood Team
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At a Glance

  • Occupational therapy (OT) helps people who struggle with everyday tasks.

  • It’s a treatment to improve motor skills, balance, and coordination.

  • OT can help kids get better at doing basic tasks, which can improve their self-esteem.

Occupational therapy (OT) helps people who struggle to do everyday tasks because of poor motor skills. For kids, that includes tasks that are part of learning and functioning well at school. OT works on the skills kids need to do the things they struggle with, from zipping their coat to writing and typing.

Here’s what you need to know about occupational therapy.

What Is Occupational Therapy

OT is a treatment that works to improve fine and gross motor skills and motor planning. It can also help kids who struggle with self-regulation and sensory processing.

The therapy is tailored to a child’s specific needs. Before it begins, an occupational therapist (an OT) looks at a child’s strengths and challenges, and the tasks that child has trouble with. The OT will then create a program of activities for the child to work on. (Watch an occupational therapist describe the OT evaluation process.)

Here are examples of the tasks and skills OTs might focus on:

  • Self-care routines like getting dressed (fine motor skills and motor planning)

  • Writing and copying notes (fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination)

  • Holding and controlling a pencil, using scissors (fine motor skills, motor planning)

  • Throwing and catching (gross motor skills like balance and coordination)

  • Organizing a backpack (motor planning, organization skills)

  • Reacting to sensory input (self-regulation skills)

OT consists of exercises and activities to build specific skills that are weak. For example, if a child has very messy handwriting, therapy may include multisensory techniques to help with handwriting. If a child struggles with focus, the therapist might have that child do full-body exercises before sitting down to do homework.

The earlier a child starts OT, the more effective it tends to be. Being able to do basic tasks can also help build up kids’ self-esteem and confidence, which can drop when they are struggling, especially in front of their peers.

Kids who struggle with motor skills tend to be uncoordinated and are often clumsy. Being seen as “different” can put them at risk of being bullied and make them feel like victims.

Talk to your child about the strengths that can come from challenges. You can also download growth mindset worksheets to help your child be optimistic about improvement.

How OT Can Help With Specific Challenges

Kids with certain challenges often need OT. One condition that impacts motor skills is developmental coordination disorder (sometimes called dyspraxia.) There are a number of activities therapists might use to help improve skills.

One exercise for fine motor skills might be for kids to pick up items with tweezers. To help with hand-dominance, kids may practice cutting out things with scissors. To build gross motor skills, kids may do jumping jacks, catch balls of different sizes, or run obstacle courses. Learn more about how OTs work with kids who need help with motor skills.

OT can also be a big help for kids who have trouble with sensory processing. When kids struggle to process sensory information, they may overreact or underreact to things they hear, see, taste, touch, or smell. That can lead kids to have meltdowns or become hyperactive.

In this case, therapists might design a sensory diet. This plan is a series of physical activities and accommodations tailored to give kids the sensory input they need. OTs 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 challenges 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. (It’s unusual to get services through a 504 plan.) To see if your child qualifies, you can request an evaluation at any time.

Some kids with an IEP may get OT in a small group or individually. This is known as direct services. Other times, OTs give suggestions to the teacher, but don’t work directly with kids. This is known as consultation-only services. The IEP team decides which setting is needed.

If your child doesn’t qualify for OT at school, you can talk with your child’s doctor about a referral to a private OT. You’ll have to pay for those services, however. Some insurance plans cover OT. If you have insurance, you can call the company to find out about coverage, and to ask for a list of providers.

In addition to OT, there are many things you can do to help with motor skills. Get tips from an expert on how to teach kids self-care routines. Explore fun ways to build fine motor skills and gross motor skills. And discover activities to help older kids improve motor skills.

Key Takeaways

  • Kids might be able to get OT services at school.

  • When kids see improvement, it can boost their confidence.

  • You can help your child build motor skills at home.

About the Author

About the Author

The Understood Team 

is made up of passionate writers, editors, and community moderators. Many of them learn and think differently, or have kids who do.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Keri Wilmot 

is an occupational therapist who works with children of varying ages and abilities in all areas of pediatrics.

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