Children achieve many developmental milestones in their first five years, such as walking, talking, and developing social skills, but not all children reach milestones as predicted. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in six kids have some type of disability. Whether a disability involves a physical issue or learning delay, early intervention can make a difference. That’s where occupational therapists come in.
Occupational therapists who work with young children may be supporting students in preschools and early intervention programs at some point in their career. If you’re considering working in a school setting, it’s helpful to learn about the role an OT plays in early childhood intervention, in case you are ever transferred to this department or assigned to evaluate these students.
Occupational therapists working in preschools or daycare centers might work with children with a variety of conditions including cerebral palsy, autism, and attention deficit disorder. Because children are so young, there may be instances where a child you’re working with does not have a specific diagnosis yet. Children who do not have a clear diagnosis can also benefit from occupational therapy.
The Responsibilities of a Preschool-Based OT
Occupational therapists in a preschool setting work together with teachers and parents to improve a child’s cognitive, motor, and communication skills. They may also address issues to help children develop play and sensory processing skills.
Although the goals for each child will be different based on their needs, the overall mission is to minimize delays, enhance development, and teach parents how to meet the needs of their child.
An OT working in early childhood intervention completes an initial evaluation of the child, which may involve parent interviews, screenings and assessment tests. After collaborating with the family and team members, such as physical therapists, speech therapists, and teachers, an individualized educational program is written.
The plan is a legal requirement that states what the child’s needs are, what services are needed, and how outcomes will be measured. This is not only legally required, but is also a great way for all team members to stay on the same page.
Although children in preschools and early intervention programs are very young, there are still many skills occupational therapists can help children improve. Some common goals occupational therapists focus on may include the following:
• Improve motor coordination
• Increase social skills
• Develop problem-solving skills
• Enhance communication
• Improve attention span
• Promote self-feeding
• Manage emotions
• Use adaptive equipment
• Environmental modifications
If you are new to working with children in a school setting, you might realize it is quite different than working as an occupational therapist in a hospital or rehab center. When you work in early childhood intervention, therapy is often family-centered. The theory is that optimal development usually occurs in a supportive home environment with parents who actively participate in their child’s therapy.
Although there are challenges to working with young children and their families, there are also many rewards. Occupational therapists in early childhood intervention can impact a child’s life right from the start and help them reach their full potential. Some therapists like to keep in touch with families and parents of children they’ve supported in order to see future progress. It’s rewarding to know that you are responsible for a child’s development of major skills needed for everyday activities!