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Dynamic Setting Inspires an Innovative Approach to Occupational Therapy

September 25, 2017

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March 25, 2014

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For children with mental health issues, developmental deficits and/or who have experienced trauma, the many social-emotional, academic and sensory challenges that school presents can prove to be overwhelming. Occupational Therapy (OT) in the school setting helps such students develop the skills they need in order to overcome barriers to success. OT addresses a student's ability to fully access the learning environment in the areas of fine motor skills (written assignment completion); functional skills (organization of materials and workspace); and sensory skills (reacting to the surrounding environment).

Working in collaboration with teachers, student aides, speech therapists, social workers, interns and others, Occupational Therapists present and practice individualized tools and strategies with students to help them perform their best and meet their goals. For example, one student might follow a 'sensory diet' and wear noise-reducing headphones while another student may work with a therapist to practice tying shoes or taking turns during a game. “We look at the whole child and do our best to listen to what they need in order to help them get their engine running at the ‘just right’ level,” says Green Chimneys Supervising Occupational Therapist Esther Knudson. “When a student feels ‘just right' they are more likely to perform to the best of their ability as they navigate complex social situations or challenging academic tasks."

IMG_5726 The swing bring smiles and helps with motor coordination and sensory processing.

See more photos of OT in motion >

The unique setting and culture of Green Chimneys is an ideal environment for OT activities that are rich, meaningful and therapeutic. In addition to supporting students in the OT clinic and classroom settings, the program integrates the nature-based learning programs and resources available on campus. The outdoor environment inspires the staff to try new therapeutic approaches, and Knudson sees this daily in her team. “I work with an amazing group of OTs and we love working here because we get to be creative with all the resources at the farm, wildlife center, garden, and outdoor recreational programs. They provide multi-dimensional and motivating opportunities for students to learn and grow.” And when you are an OT, that feels ‘just right.'

WORK tasks incorporate a range of skills, requiring physical activity and awareness of surroundings to operate in tandem. OT Esther begins her Monday at the barn working with Hunter to care for sheep, llamas and goats by feeding them 'flakes' of hay. Hunter loads and drives the new red wheelbarrow, navigating between buildings and through barn doors while visually scanning his environment for potential safety issues. While he separates and lifts flakes of hay, Hunter 'wakes up' and strengthens core postural muscles essential for sitting upright and writing at a desk. Esther notes how he performs this 'whole body' visual-motor task in the dynamic farm environment.

INTERACTION with animals is a valuable opportunity for students to learn to gauge their own behaviors. Even the simple act of petting a dog employs body and spacial awareness, sensory-motor skills, and reading social cues in order to approach the dog; understand the quality and nature of touch or pressure to use; and perceive the dog's comfort level with the activity. Animals are good partners in this because they provide immediate feedback; they are receptive to interaction when students are sensitive to their needs, and withdraw from input that is unwelcome or uncomfortable.

PLAY is considered an important ‘occupation’ of children, and OTs rarely miss an opportunity to incorporate fun and games, both as a means and an end to help develop foundational skills (e.g. motor coordination, sensory processing, visual-perceptual skills). As these skills develop, students are better able to practice higher level skills such as behavioral regulation, social participation, self-care and problem solving. "Involvement in play and intrinsically motivating activities," says OT Lisa Serlin, "is especially important for our children who face difficulty in their ability to cope with challenges, manage emotions, tolerate frustration and control impulses."

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