Occupational therapists help children with the “job” of being a student. Through remediation, accommodations, and adaptations, they help teachers make sure that students’ skills are a match with the demands of the classroom and school, to ensure that all students can participate with their classmates and benefit from their education. OT’s assess and address motor skills, sensory needs, and visual perception. They also help the team with assistive technology needs, and may help staff use sensory strategies to help with behavior or social skills.
According to the Virginia Regulations governing Special Education Programs for children with Disabilities “Occupational therapy” means services provided by a qualified occupational therapist or services provided under the direction or supervision of a qualified occupational therapist and includes:(Regulations Governing the Licensure of Occupational Therapists (18VAC85-80-10 et seq.); 34 CFR 300.34(c)(6))
This means that OT is added on to an IEP or 504 to support the primary service providers:
Students must first be found eligible for special education services before schools are required to consider providing direct OT services.
Following assessment by an OTR, the educational team will meet to consider the results of the assessment and determine whether it is necessary to add OT services to the student’s plan.
Many people are familiar with Occupational Therapy (OT) through a medical setting. They may have a family member who received therapy after an injury or as part of rehabilitation in a clinic or hospital in their community. Parents may receive a referral for Occupational Therapy for their child from their pediatrician. However, there are some differences in OT delivery within the school setting from the medical or health-related setting. Following is an explanation of the role of OTs in schools and how this differs from OT in a health setting.
OTs who work with students in public schools are employed by the schools. Their services are mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA) or by Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The scope of these services are guided by these laws.
The difference between medically-based and school-based OT is the scope of the focus of services. A clinic or hospital-based therapist will evaluate, recommend services, treat and monitor progress for any impairments that can be measured. For example, a clinic-based pediatric Occupational Therapist may work with a student who has some fine motor weaknesses that make playing the guitar frustrating, if that is a meaningful activity for that child. They may address sensory processing difficulties that make bath-time upsetting and frustrating for the family.
Within the school setting, however, OTs address disabilities, skill deficits, and/or injuries that directly impact that student’s ability to participate in and benefit from school-related tasks and roles. In the above examples, the students may qualify for Special Educational services due to learning differences, but may still not qualify for school-based OT. They do not need to be able to play guitar or soccer or tolerate a bath to be able to benefit from their educational setting. The skill deficits would need to be such that their educational performance or participation is significantly impacted.