Friday, October 15, 2010

Why We Become Occupational Therapists

My name is Cumba Siegler, and I work as an Occupational Therapist (OT) for the Santa Cruz City Schools in California. I’ve been invited by Achievement Products to contribute posts to this blog from time to time, for which I’m being compensated. I’m happy to do it because I see value in reaching out to my fellow OTs, teachers and parents.

What draws us to this profession?

Why do we work with children?

Why work in the schools?
Didn’t I already graduate?

Aren’t I done with the smell of peanut butter and wet mittens and white paste?

Because we love children, and we want to help them become the people they might become. Because our hearts leap when a child learns how to tie his shoes or cut out a circle, or print her letters on the line, and children want to show everyone what they have accomplished. We’re accomplishment junkies! We thrill to the cry, “I did it! Look me! Look me!” We don’t mind that children have learning disabilities, or autism, or motor difficulties; we want to dig in and help them master whatever is in their way. If we get paint, glue, yogurt, boogers or glitter on our clothes, well, it’s part of the job! And, we get to play with toys! We get to shop for toys, and figure out how children might use them to increase their skills, whether fine or gross motor, social or cognitive skills. We play with blocks , dough, beads, puzzles, tweezers, soft cuddle balls, vibrating animal shaped massagers, trampolines, crawling tunnels, craft items, and anything else we can buy for under a dollar. We will stay up late figuring out how to make some piece of cardboard into a template so a child can learn to trace their name onto a box and keep fidgets inside their desk. We save straws to have children cut up and make into beads. We buy battery operated drills to put together vehicles and try our best not to help the children do it, so they can learn to do it themselves. We sit on our hands so we won’t help. It looks like we’re not doing anything, but we’re carefully watching how the child approaches the task, and how he seems to feel about it. We look at his facial expressions and body language: are they scrunched up? Relaxed? Vibrating with anxiety, or joy, or ambivalence because he has to go to the bathroom but doesn’t want to leave the project, even for a minute? We know how to assemble that truck or do that crayon rubbing, but we have to wait and let the children figure things out for themselves. We can tell them, it’s ok to ask me for help, or model it for them; “Can you help me, please?” The best part is when children figure out how to do something, and they let out a happy sigh. It’s magic!

Quiz: Are you a school-based OT?
*Does your heart leap when you see a yard-sale sign?
*Do you observe how children move and play and interact all the time
(on the street, in the store, at the playground with your own children?)
*Do you ask children where they got that cool toy, then rush out to get it?
*Do you talk shop constantly with other therapists?
*Do you have 10 or more toy catalogs you pore over with longing?
*Are you thrilled to sit down to paperwork? (trick question)
*Do you own more toys than your local toy store?
*Are you called by your name across the playground over and over, to be
waved at?
*Do you know all the words to “Baby Beluga?”

And so begins more exploration, playfulness and growth; a labor of love. I'm ready.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Focus Through Movement

Hello, my name is Bridgette Anderson. I am director of therapy at Developmental Therapy Center, a sensory integration clinic in San Diego. I have been working with children with special needs in school and clinic settings for over 12 years. Helping parents figure out how to help their child is one of my passions. I was excited when Achievement Products for Special Needs asked me to write posts for the Achievement Products for Special Needs blog to help parents find ways to help their children and to share my ideas with other professionals as well. Although I am compensated by Achievement Products for Special Needs for my posts, the thoughts and opinions are entirely mine.

As we all know, fall is a busy and stressful time with parents trying to figure out how to help their children adjust to the new demands school places on them. There are so many adjustments for children to make, whether it is returning to school after an active summer or a first school experience. Children of all ages are immediately expected to sit for longer periods of time, to concentrate and to work in environments which are much more dynamic than the peace and quite of a bedroom or study at home. Don’t get me wrong, I believe all of these are important skills for a child to learn, but frequently parents ask me, “What can we do to help?”

There are a number of suggestions that can help support a child through a school day. It is important to work with the teacher to be sure they understand how you are trying to help. I have found that most teachers are more than willing to add supports into a class to help children. In fact, frequently they are able to have others benefit from the supports as well. Without knowing an individual child, I can never make specific suggestions, but here are some simple ideas that it won’t hurt to try and that I’ve found have a pretty good success rate. All of the sensory tools I refer to can be found through Achievement Products for Special Needs. Remember, these are supports to help a child get through the day. If things get more and more difficult, I suggest you seek out more professional help specifically for your child.

For the child who has difficulty sitting still in class:

One tool for children who just can’t stop moving is to have them sit on something that allows the body to move and but does not disrupt the class (for many children this moving allows the brain to focus on what is being said). Here’s a simple way to test this idea: put a puff of air in a beach ball and have the child sit on it to see if it helps him pay attention better while sitting. If there is some success, but the ball is too mobile and tends to disrupt the class, then a “sit disk”, “posture wedge” or air cushion will provide the child with the ability to move his body enough to concentrate without disrupting others.

A different type of seating that is more effective for some children is a therapy ball (a large-diameter ball) which bends with the movement of your body --like a large yoga ball. In order to normalize this solution more for the classroom environment, provide the classroom with a therapy ball chair. The chair eliminates the possibility of too much rolling of the ball or of the child falling off the ball, and it provides some back support.

Another tip for helping a child who can’t sit still in class is to allow the child to use a “fidgit” like Finger Fidgets - Set of 10, basically a toy they can hold in their hand(s). As with all supports, it is important to set classroom rules for when and how the child may use a fidgit. It’s amazing how much it can support a child and allow her brain to focus on the academics while the fidgit is giving her body the information it needs. Fidgits can also be passed around the classroom or shared.

When selecting a fidgit, think about these questions: (1) what activities will allow my child to get in some movement (even if just with his hands); (2) can this movement be achieved without disrupting the class or creating too much of a distraction; (3) what type of textures and movements will work best for my child? For example, if squeezing and tactile stimulation is an activity that seems to promote calming for your child, you may prefer balls such as the Magic Gertie Balls - Set of 2 or Sea Creature Anemones. Other children will prefer a movement of the fingers or hands. This can be accomplished with an Super Mondo Inside Out Ball. Still, other children will prefer a touch or rubbing movement, with supports such as the Small Tactile Pillow or a Vinyl Porcupine Ball. Finally, there are the children who need objects that cannot be tossed, shared, or noticed. For these children I recommend various items which can be attached to a pencil or pen. Pencil grips--used to support the child with handwriting--can be placed towards the top of the pencil, and pencil weights can be moved up and down a pencil. Both provide the child with an opportunity to fidget in a much more inconspicuous manner.

Hopefully one or many of these suggestions are helpful for you, or you might find other items or ideas in the Achievement Products for Special Needs website or catalog. Work with the teacher as a team to support your child through a successful transition to the school environment, and to provide an increased ability for your child to concentrate on learning rather than on the effort to keep his body still. Remember movement is a child’s friend, so always provide lots of opportunities before and after school for children to get motor activity. This will help support their ability to focus in class as well as their general good health.