Occupational Therapy is a holistic profession that works alongside people when illness, disability, injury or development impacts their ability to participate in the things that are meaningful and important to them. Every baby, child, adolescent and adult is unique in their development, skills and interests; however, to ensure a child reaches their maximum potential, certain skills are needed. Trust your intuition as a parent. You are the expert on your child. If you feel like something isn’t right, seek help. – Lyndal Alexander, Occupational Therapist at Chatterbox.
What is Occupational Therapy?
Occupational Therapy is a holistic profession that works alongside people when illness, disability, injury, or development impact their ability to participate in the things that are meaningful and important to them. We look at our clients through a variety of lenses but take time to understand the person with their unique strengths and struggles, the physical and cultural context, and those things that they occupy their time with. Occupational Therapists work with people across their lifespan, across multiple settings and specialties. The main goals in Occupational Therapy are getting an individual to a place of participating fully in their own lives, doing what they need or want to do, and achieving independence in a way that resonates with them, ultimately improving their quality of life.
What Occupational Therapy Looks Like
Therapy sessions are unique to each child, and while they look different for everyone, they all include elements essential to childhood: independence and play! There are many strategies and techniques in therapy, but there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and no one technique is better than the next. Rather, it is about finding a therapist that your child connects with and who can find the right therapeutic approach for your child and their needs. A sample of approaches include: Reflex Integration, Sensory Integration, DIR Floortime, Neurodevelopmental Therapy, trauma-informed care, handwriting programmes and many more.
It is important to note that therapy is not a ‘quick fix’ approach and takes time, working at the child’s pace of physical, emotional and cognitive readiness and capacity. Often therapists will also encourage caregivers or school teachers to implement strategies to ensure that there is as much repetition as possible across multiple environments. Therapy can take place at home, school or at a therapy centre depending on the best fit for the family and the needs of the child and may involve strategies directly with the child, or to adapt his/her environment or the activities they need to participate in.
Paediatric Occupational Therapy can work with children who are diagnosed with: Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, disorders of Executive Functioning, Intellectual Impairment, Learning Disabilities, Mental Health conditions (e.g. anxiety), Sensory Processing Disorders, and various syndromes, to name a few. Please contact an Occupational Therapist or your paediatrician if you’re concerned about any particular diagnosis or whether your child should receive therapeutic support.
Occupational Therapy From Infancy to Parenthood
Every baby, child, adolescent and adult is unique in their development, skills and interests; however to ensure an individual reaches their maximum potential, certain skills are needed. Trust your intuition as a parent, you are the expert in your child, if you feel like something isn’t right, seek help.
“The whole-brain child” by Dr. Daniel Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson.
Early intervention focuses on the early years – babies and toddlers, their development and attachment within the family. This is the time when your baby’s brain is undergoing huge amounts of growth and is being wired for life.
Babies who were born prematurely or had difficulties in their first few months of life may struggle with their development thereafter, but with early support, a lot of these struggles can be overcome.
What to look out for?
- Difficulty moving their body, i.e. lifting their head, muscles are tight or floppy
- Delays in motor or language skills by comparison to children of a similar age
- Skipping crawling stage
- Behaviours that you do not see in other babies and toddlers
- Oversensitivity to their environment
Children aged 4 -12 years develop in leaps and bounds and must learn to participate in increasingly varied and complex environments. They are improving their movement skills – climbing trees, playing outdoors, and playing sport; playing with friends and learning how to interact in different social settings. They develop their ability to communicate, and their thinking becomes more complex as they progress through the education system. The opportunities they are afforded at home and school to test out and use all their skills will impact their performance and development.
Following the COVID-19 global lockdown, we are seeing a rise in childhood anxiety. The mental health of school-aged children, in particular, is of growing concern. When a child is anxious, there is less capacity for attention and participation.
What to look out for?
- Different behaviour in relation to their peer group
- Teachers are great at detecting difficulties in class, so listen closely to the observations they share about your child
- Difficulty managing their ‘big emotions’ and staying calm
- Struggling to pay attention during homework, following instructions
- Having trouble doing everyday skills, i.e. dressing, bathing, eating
Teens aged 13-15 years have another spurt of significant brain development and this is often matched with the increased need for sleep. Teens are becoming more independent.
What to look out for?
- Poor school performance and concerns raised by teachers
- Difficulty with decision-making, planning or reasoning skills
- Struggling with everyday skills, i.e. packing school bags, making a simple meal, dressing themselves
- Struggling with social interactions or bullying
- Mental health concerns or low self-esteem
Parents & Caregivers
As a parent, you may need assistance or support to in connecting with your child, understanding their development or how to manage behaviour or emotions. Part of the role of the Occupational Therapist is to also work with the family to enable them to connect with and enhance their relationship with their child outside of the therapy context as well as provide skills to support your child or teen in their journey.
At times, other members in this support system may also need assistance or therapy for reasons unrelated to the child, but that may influence the child’s life. For example, if a parent has a stroke, cancer or other condition impacting the ability to parent or be involved in supporting a child. Occupational Therapists can help here too!
What to look out for?
- Difficulty bonding with your baby
- Struggling with discipline
- Caregiver burnout
Wait and see’ is often a popular recommendation, but early intervention is key. Although our brains can learn and change throughout our lives, the most prolific growth is during the first three years of life and again in early adolescence. Early intervention means that your child has the best opportunity to create the necessary connections in their brain and body that will support the rest of their development as they get older.
About the Author
Lyndal Alexander is an Occupational Therapist at Chatterbox. She has a Masters in Early Childhood Intervention and over a decade of experience, having worked in hospitals as well as for international organisations across Africa.
She is based at Chatterbox, where she sees both paediatric and adult clients, offers children’s therapeutic yoga, hand therapy, and practices a clinical specialty in women’s cancer rehabilitation.