Not only is April the start of spring and baseball season, but it is also Occupational Therapy Month! Occupational therapists use various tools in a variety of settings, helping individuals throughout the life span reach functional goals to help them achieve skills for the job of living. As a pediatric occupational therapist, the job I prepare many children for is school. Recently, there has been an ongoing dialogue throughout the pediatric community, and about the increasing pre-academic demands on 3 to 5 year olds. While many children may be successful in academic settings at a young age, not all children have the foundational developmental skills to perform at their highest potential in this setting at this age. Child development should be viewed on a continuum. Sometimes a child requires additional support to be successful in different environments.
Pediatric occupational therapists use active movement and exploration to promote development. Often therapy focuses on helping a child integrate his or her sensory systems, in order to better interact in multiple settings. Children learn best when they’re exploring an environment. This can be achieved by actively navigating their bodies over various obstacles, problem solving how to reach a desired toy, moving from rug to hard wood floor to tile, and negotiating how to move objects of various sizes. All of these activities enrich and develop the multiple systems that contribute to attention and engagement. While the goal of exploration is the same in each of the above examples, each child presents differently and the methods used to achieve these goals vary. During evaluation and ongoing treatment, occupational therapists are constantly assessing the child to help parents and teachers figure out how to best support him or her. One child may require a brightly colored placemat to keep his food in his area at snack time. Another child might benefit from climbing activities to increase body awareness prior to circle time.
Children are motivated to explore and engage when they feel they are in a safe environment. Pre-academic settings have the potential to do just that while also providing structure and social interaction. But remember, it’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach. Not all children develop at the same rate, and it’s important for their individual needs to be taken into account for them to successfully meet pre-academic demands. Just as some adults prefer a good spin or yoga class before focusing on work, some children require swinging on the monkey bars or crawling through a tunnel before they can focus on schoolwork. If your child is having difficulty, an occupational therapist can assess your child and if needed, work with parents, teachers, and physicians to help them be successful in more structured pre-academic settings.