What is Occupational Therapy

What is occupational therapy in the school setting?

Occupational therapy is a "…supportive service required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education..." Students who receive occupational therapy services in the school setting have been determined to need occupational therapy in order to benefit educationally. One of a child’s roles is to be successful both academically and socially in school. Some children require a modified curriculum and/or additional assistance to achieve mastery in these areas. Through the use of adaptation, teaching, therapeutic exercise and play, an occupational therapist may support a child in reaching their curriculum goals.

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What is a related service?
Related services are support services for special education and are not instructional services. They are those services necessary for the student to make progress toward the identified instructional goals. Related services may include occupational therapy, physical therapy, music therapy, assistive technology, counseling, diagnostic medical services, and transportation. Occupational therapy services are funded through school budgets utilizing state, local, and federal funds.

There are many “related services” that might benefit a child with a disability, just as there are many services that might benefit a child who does not have a disability. However, the law does not require that such services be provided. Rather, the legal duty to provide a related service arises only when without the service the child’s educational program would become less than appropriate, i.e., when the child would not benefit from his educational program without these services. In determining whether a related service is “necessary” for a student, the district should rely on a related services assessment. (Susan B. Graham, 1996)

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What areas do occupational therapists address with their students in the school setting?

  • Fine motor skills: hand development, hand strength, grasp patterns, pencil grasp, handwriting, dexterity, scissor skills, shoulder/trunk strength and stability.
  • Self-help skills: manage clothing in the school setting (i.e., buttons, zippers, snaps, tie shoes), feeding skills, and use of adaptive equipment.
  • Assistive Technology: provision of any “item, piece of equipment, or product system whether acquired commercially or off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capacities of a child with a disability”.
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How does a child qualify for occupational therapy services?

First, it must be determined that the child is eligible to receive special education services. Then, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) must be developed to address the academic areas of concern for the child. If the child is not making progress toward mastery of the IEP goals, additional related service support such as occupational therapy may be recommended. A referral is made to evaluate the child in the school setting to determine eligibility for services. An IEP meeting will be held to discuss the results of the occupational therapy evaluation. If a child does not qualify, recommendations may be made for additional assistance.

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If a child is receiving private or clinical occupational therapy, will he/she automatically receive occupational therapy in the school setting?

Not necessarily. The goal of medical/clinical therapy is to treat the symptoms of the underlying cause of a child’s disability. The goal of educational therapy is to assist the student in attaining educational goals. For example, in clinical therapy a child’s goals may include increasing range of motion and decreasing muscle tone to improve quality of movement. In the educational environment this child’s disability might not interfere with his/her ability to perform in the classroom, thus, he/she would not be eligible for services in the school setting.

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A student in my class is dysgraphic. What do I do?

First, go online and read about the characteristics of dysgraphia. Before concluding a child is dysgraphic, ensure that the student has the appropriate sub-skills (prewriting skills, formal handwriting instruction, visual motor skills, etc.). Often, children just need more exposure, practice and repetition with handwriting. Dysgraphia, however, is a neurological disorder characterized by writing disabilities. Specifically, the disorder causes a person's writing to be distorted or incorrect. In children, the disorder generally emerges when they are first introduced to writing. They make inappropriately sized and spaced letters, or write wrong or misspelled words, despite thorough instruction. Children with the disorder may have other learning disabilities, however, they usually have no social or other academic problems. In addition to poor handwriting, dysgraphia is frequently characterized by wrong or odd spelling, and incorrect production of words (i.e., using "boy" for "child"). The cause of the disorder is unknown.

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