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You Might be Surprised to Learn Children and Teens Can Benefit from Occupational Therapy

By Fraser Sensory Supports and Training Manager Gina Brady and Fraser Sensory Inclusion Specialist Karmen Nyberg • occupational therapy, OT, occupational therapy for kids, children occupational therapy, occupational therapy for teens, occupational therapy for adolescents, OT kids, OT children, occupational therapy benefits kids, occupational therapy is for kids, occupational therapy benefits teens, fine motor skills therapy kids, visual motor skills therapy kids, sensory issues therapy kids • October 26, 2023

Occupational therapy likely calls to mind an adult receiving therapy for hand or back issues, which is affecting their ability to work. However, Fraser Occupational Therapists provide therapy to toddlers through teenagers. So, how could occupational therapy possibly help a young child?

“I always tell parents and caregivers that kids’ jobs are to play, get themselves dressed, feed themselves and learn, which helps them understand how occupational therapy can help,” says Gina Brady, Fraser Sensory Supports and Training Manager and Occupational Therapist.

What do kids work on in occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy (OT) can help children and teens become more independent and complete tasks more easily, whether that means brushing their teeth or learning how to take a city bus by themselves.

Fraser Occupational Therapists help children improve: 

  • Fine motor skills
  • Visual motor skills
  • Self-care skills
  • Emotional regulation
  • Cognition
  • Sensory processing skills

The OT Toolbox states, “Fine motor skills refer to precision, dexterity, and coordination of the hands. These are the skills that allow us to use our hands to manipulate materials like pencils, containers, clothing fasteners and little objects.” These skills are needed to get dressed, take notes, cut out a paper heart and use a fork and knife.

Brady says therapy often begins by teaching children how to regulate their sensory systems. If a child is dysregulated, it will be hard, or nearly impossible, for them to sit down and focus. So, an occupational therapist teaches them how to get their bodies to a place where they can engage and learn. They might do an obstacle course, where a child crawls through a tunnel or rolls their body across a cushioned floor. Each session is customized to fit the child and family's specific interests, needs and goals.

This type of intervention is known as heavy work, and it often looks like play, says Brady. Heavy work activities are anything your child can push or pull against resistance, providing calming and soothing sensations for the body.

Helping children learn to regulate can also mean focusing on taking deep and purposeful breaths through breathing exercises. This is also a great strategy for parents to learn, says Brady, so parents and children can co-regulate or learn to calm down together. One exercise that is easy to teach kids is the finger breathing technique. You can even have your child watch this video to practice with you. You can also use Fraser’s virtual sensory room.

Occupational therapy isn’t about erasing your child’s emotions

Occupational therapists don’t expect kids to sit, be quiet and focus all the time. A child isn’t always going to be happy and thoughtful. Sometimes, they will feel sad or mad, which is normal and healthy. Therapists also understand that learning to regulate your body and emotions is a lifelong process.

“We teach kids how to match their energy to the situation,” says Brady. “During gym or recess, kids will have higher energy, but that’s not the same energy level we want to see in math class. We just give them the tools and strategies to know how to react properly to different situations.”

Does your child need occupational therapy?

You may be unsure if your kid needs occupational therapy. Brady says a child would likely benefit from OT if they have difficulty paying attention during a learning activity or mealtime. Or, maybe they avoid certain sensory input, like brushing their teeth or bathing. Children who fear going certain places because the places are too loud or crowded may also benefit from occupational therapy.

How long does occupational therapy last?

Brady says most kids attend occupational therapy 1-2 times a week for about 3-6 months. Then, they might take a break and return in another few months, if they’re still working on skills. Or, if their concerns are resolved, that is the end of their OT. 

How can parents help children work regulation skills at home?

You can create an at-home obstacle course for your child. You might also take the cushions off the sofa, put the cushions on the floor and then have your child army crawl across the cushions. Things like raking leaves, planting flowers or pulling weeds are also heavy work activities. Many kids may not want to help with housework, but some might enjoy vacuuming, sweeping or dusting. Or, maybe you usually apply lotion after your child takes a bath, so adding a massage along with that routine can provide deep pressure, which is soothing. You want to pick things that make sense to add to your daily routine, and feel like fun to your child. If you’re struggling, your OT can help you come up with ideas.