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Ask an OT – Homeschool Edition

Many homeschooling parents choose to school at home due to their child’s specific needs and learning style. Some of these children have obtained a diagnosis such as ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder or Autism Spectrum Disorder. Or all of the above, as these conditions often coexist. Or, a totally typically developing kiddo might struggle with executive functioning and not have any diagnosis at all. Executive function refers to the set of skills humans possess regarding things like memory, flexible-thinking and self control. When there is an executive functioning skill deficit, things like focus, following directions and emotional regulation can be affected. All things needed for a general education classroom.

Occupational therapists can help. Occupational therapists are used in a variety of settings and treat a variety of conditions. They help their clients and patients develop, maintain and improve the skill sets needed for daily living and working. In a school setting, many children will have OT goals based on their IEP and individual needs. An occupational therapist will often focus on self care skills, handwriting strength and grip as well as social participation. Many of the aforementioned diagnosis involve motor delays in children. OT’s often work with children in schools to improve upon their coordination, balance and endurance.

We asked occupational therapist, Shelly Mourning, MS, OTR/L, for some pointers for parents new to homeschooling during the covid-19 global pandemic of 2020.

Hi Shelly! What made you want to be an OT?
When I was in high school my mom started working as an instructional assistant in a self contained classroom at the middle school next door. I would walk over after school and hang out with the kids while waiting for a ride home. I met the OT working with these kids and thought that it was awesome what she was doing and asked a million questions. From there I did a ton of research and decided I wanted to work with kids with special needs from then on! I love that OTs get to work on functional activities, and really can help with SO many aspects of life.

What ages of children do you like working with the most?
This is a hard question. I love working with the littles, birth to three was my thing. After I had my own kids, I started working in schools and was assigned to a middle school, where I worked for almost three years. I learned about their struggles, how puberty can mess everything up, and how little there is for adults with disabilities past high school. I love the huge change that happens when the kids are little, but there’s a lot of change and potential as they age!

Do you recommend any type of sensory diet?
Sensory diets are great but each and every one is different. Really working with your OT will help. A kid can be seeking in one area and avoidant in another. And things can change with the seasons, age (puberty), illness, etc. Sensory difficulties are unique between individuals and can be fluid!

Do you have any recommendations for parents new to homeschooling and virtual learning?
Be kind to yourself. This is new territory to a lot of people, but there are resources out there. Ask for help. Also know that the therapist or teacher on the other side of the computer are just as stressed and worried about your child as you are. You are an integral part of the team, work together, problem solve and be open about your needs and struggles.

For children who have trouble staying on task, are there any particular activities or exercises that you’ve found to be helpful in the classroom?
Alternative seating has made a huge difference in classrooms that allow it. Even without sensory issues, children have a hard time attending for extended periods of time. Allowing them to change their position, bounce, move about the room, etc., allows a child to regulate to their needs and help attend to the classroom.

Do you think all children can benefit from a kinesthetic teaching style?
I do think all kids can benefit from the kinesthetic teaching style. Not only does it allow for children who need movement and breaks in learning, but could help those children who need work on core strength or upper body strength, which in turn can help with sitting at a traditional desk and with fine motor activities.

What kind of tools would you provide for a multi-sensory learning experience?
Anything you can think of! It really depends on the topic but there really is something for everything and everyone. Seating, sounds, items to touch, smell, really the sky is the limit.

How can parents help their children with OT goals?
Remember you are part of the team. Your OT sees your child for a snippet of their week, you see them for many more hours. Ask questions, add input and understand OT wants your child to make as much progress as you do. Also know that you’re there to be a parent too and not a therapist. You can help support the goals, encourage the skills at home, but also be the parent!

Is there anything you would like parents to know from a therapist’s standpoint, as many of us embark on the virtual learning adventure together?
It’s so new and scary for us as well. We understand that your time is precious and you aren’t used to being the therapist with direction. Make it fun and give yourself some grace.

Thank you Shelly!

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