Occupational Therapy Strategies to Enhance the Classroom Pt. III

Just as we explored occupational therapy (OT) methods that support fine motor control, balance, and coordination in the previous two posts, this third and final post will focus on OT methods for the classroom that support behavior management and attentiveness. Of course, depending on each student’s individual needs, the supports and strategies will vary. Likewise, a student’s age and developmental abilities will also determine which methods are beneficial and how to include them in the learning environment.

For children that need tactile strategies to promote their attentiveness in the classroom, teachers can employ some of the following activities:

Fidget toys, stress balls, and thinking putty/clay are great options for students that prefer to keep their hands moving while learning. Because of the rhythmic stretching, squeezing, or rolling between fingers or hands, students with attention issues are able to channel the urge to move, tap, or click into the object that they are holding. Just as the occupational therapist would do, however, be sure that students are using the fidget item discreetly, not as a toy or distraction.

When possible, plan to utilize 3D objects as models or manipulatives to introduce math or spelling concepts. For example, for elementary schoolers learning about multiplication via arrays, teachers can use Legos to build the array in place of drawing it or shading it on paper. The process of constructing and deconstructing arrays using Legos allows students to comprehend how 2+2+2+2 = 2 x 4 and what that representation looks like in 3D geometric form.

Using sand, paint, or shaving cream in aluminum baking trays, or “spelling trays,” allows students to practice their letter formation, spacing, and size with an engaging added sensory component. The practice is low risk as well; if a child messes up his letter, he can simply shake the sand or add more shaving cream and begin again.

For children that need movement strategies to promote their attentiveness and positive behavior in the classroom, teachers can employ some of the following activities:

Much like many 504 and IEP accommodations, frequent breaks are certainly beneficial when students become agitated or restless. A way to incorporate this method into the mainstream classroom is to promote brain breaks for all students in the room. Especially for classes that are run on a block schedule, teachers can break the instruction for 2-3 minutes to allow students to pace, jump on a miniature trampoline, stretch with resistance bands, do jumping jacks, toss a bean bag, play Simon Says, or simply stretch to release some pent up energy.

Teachers might consider swapping out their desk chairs for yoga/therapy balls, wiggle seats, bean bag chairs, stools, rocking chairs, wedge seats, or swivel stools. The different range of seating options allow students to bounce, alter positions, or swivel to expel some of their energy. With alternate seating, just be sure to provide clipboards or other surfaces for students to write comfortably.

There are also additional strategies to promote attention and positive behavior:

Much like educators differentiate by providing student choice, occupational therapists also utilize options and choices to promote engagement, attentiveness, and positive participation and behavior. When offering choices of activities, challenges, projects, practices, etc., occupational therapists try to provide at least one option or rotation activity that appeals to the child’s strengths and/or interests. When children have a hand in selecting their activity or assignment, they feel a stronger sense of ownership and independence, which increases effort and motivation.

OT methods also frequently incorporate tech tools to promote development of certain skills or practices. Teachers can provide links to podcasts, educational videos, scholarly articles or websites, and educational games for students to browse and play. The technology not only promotes engagement; the audiovisual component allows students to watch and listen as concepts and skills are modeled for them. They can also work at their own personal pace while using tech tools by pausing, rereading/re-watching, or completing additional practice games.

After a therapy session, many professionals ask children to reflect on and rate their work during the session. Questions can focus on the content, activities, behavior, focus/attention, etc. The key for this OT practice is to encourage students to reflect on the session and discuss areas of strength and areas for improvement. Teachers can plan mini-conferences with students to discuss progress. Stress the fact that genuine ratings and responses are essential for reflection and growth. Not only are students accounting for their successes and missteps, but they are also practicing skills such as summarizing, causes and effects, paraphrasing, memorization, critical thinking, and metacognition.

Occupational Therapy Strategies to Enhance the Classroom Pt. II

In addition to occupational therapy (OT) strategies that promote and strengthen fine motor control in the classroom setting, there are a number of additional techniques and practices taken from occupational therapists for younger elementary children that need a little bit of guidance with their balance, coordination, sensory processing, behavior management, or attentiveness.

Balance and Coordination

We often place these two concepts in the athletics realm; however, balance and coordination are necessities not limited to physical education programs in schools. These essential life skills stretch way beyond the field or court. Daily practices such as dressing, eating, climbing stairs, writing, brushing teeth, etc., rely on one’s ability to coordinate certain motor skills. Therefore, the roughly 5-7% of children affected by developmental coordination disorder, or DCD, will need to rely on OT practices and methods to develop more than a fastball or perfect jump shot. Their day-to-day practices truly hinge on their ability to develop coordination over time.

In the academic atmosphere, children with DCD or other difficulties with balance or coordination can benefit from the following modifications or strategies:

  • Desk chairs that are detached from the desk allow for more appropriate and comfortable positioning in terms of seating. The children can scoot or push their chairs in to their desired proximity to the desktop, which discourages slouching, reaching, and fidgeting.

  • Teacher notes or worksheets can be modified so that copying from the board is limited, as this can be a frustrating process for children with DCD. Fill-in-the-blank or paraphrased notes allow students to practice viewing the board, listening to the teacher, and writing an abbreviated version of the notes while maintaining focus. Because of the modification, the student is still receiving the content and is actively participating, but the workload is less taxing for him/her.

  • Provide students with paper that suits their handwriting style. If you know that a student’s main issue is size or spacing of letters, provide him with wider lined paper and lined paper that includes the vertical margin lines. If the issue is aligning numbers correctly in math problems, consider providing graph paper or grids to promote precise number alignment.

  • Incorporate tossing and catching into your memorization or test review lessons. Keep the rotation predictable, such as passing around the room in a circle or passing the ball alphabetically among the class. Use a larger, lighter item that allows for easy passing and receiving, such as a beachball or beanbag.

  • Games such as Twister and hopscotch allow teachers to incorporate balance and coordination with other content-area skills or practices. For instance, elementary schoolers learning their times tables can use hopscotch to demonstrate mental math while practicing balancing, hopping, standing, etc. A family favorite game, Twister, similarly encourages coordination while students reach and stretch left and right hands and feet.

  • Teachers can utilize painters tape as a way for students to practice making and categorizing shapes, then use the taped shape outlines to practice balance. Challenge students by having them walk the lines of the shapes “heel to toe.” You can add levels of difficulty by asking them to toss a bean bag while walking, recite the alphabet or math facts, or walk backwards.  

In the third and final edition of OT strategies in the classroom, we will focus on occupational therapy methods for the classroom that support behavior management and attentiveness.  

Developing Grit: A Guide for Parents

Grit, as it pertains to behavior and motivation, has been a popular buzzword in the education world as of late. Perhaps the reason that it has taken center stage is the fact that today’s adolescents are overwhelmingly lacking in grit. Merriam-Webster defines grit as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit.Grit, however, is much more than sheer determination. Furthermore, grit should not be misconstrued as a trait of stubbornness. This characteristic is substantially more complex than the unwillingness to accept failure, and yet, it has a great deal to do with one’s failures. As Angela Duckworth, who’s garnered a following after her TED talk on grit, claims: grit should be defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

With such an emphasis on grit, or rather, the absence of it among today’s youth, it is an essential topic of discussion for parents. What does grit look like? What is the danger of an absence of grit? Since it is such a crucial attribute, how can we ensure that our children and teens develop grit?

A world without grit:

If we were to describe today’s young people in one word, including my own fellow millennials, our generation and those that have followed could be considered “soft.” Coddled, entitled, and sheltered also come to mind when I think about young people today. Some may not know it, but this “softness”—this inability to persevere or handle setbacks—is indicative of a lack of grit.

The unfortunate (and terrifying) truth is that many of today’s recent high school graduates, though perfectly capable applicants on paper, are abysmally ill-equipped to thrive on their own at the university level. Most likely, much of primary school was smoke and mirrors—students were given an A for effort, innumerable opportunities to reassess or resubmit assignments, and gratuitous applause. While it is important to reference the value of self-esteem, the pendulum may have swung too far in the direction of sensitivity.

Parents need to be aware of this lack of grit, because teachers, professors, and employers certainly are. What we are seeing now is that the slightest difficulty, obstacle, or discouragement renders today’s teens completely helpless—any effort or motivation that they may have had for their end goal becomes dashed by fears of failure the moment they sense anything less than perfection on the horizon. Teens are so used to unwarranted praise or the metaphorical “participation trophy” that they are incapable of picking themselves up by their bootstraps, getting back on the horse, dusting off to try again, and any other euphemism alluding to grit. We are raising the “1-and-done” generation, who would rather sell themselves short than experience a nanosecond of discomfort, failure, or rejection.

Without grit, teens become young adults that, while dutiful followers, will never risk failure for a leadership opportunity. They will choose predictable or comfortable stability over spirited, or self-determined, trailblazing every time. They will blame any setback or perceived rejection on the “powers that be” or anything outside of their control. They will consider any criticism as an attack, as opposed to an opportunity to reflect and grow with that knowledge. Students lacking grit become adults who only explore inside the box, and only play when the odds are in their favor.

One of the most “gritty” writers said it best:

“Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way…It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” J.K. Rowling

Read on to find out more about the correlation between grit and failure, as well as tips for encouraging grit at home and in school in Part II of Developing Grit: A Guide for Parents.

Constructive Feedback

Educators are trained to provide rigorous, engaging instruction, fair and accurate grades and assessments, and helpful criticism or feedback. As an English teacher, written feedback is a crucial aspect of the editing, revising and grading process. For students, the best way to ensure that our feedback is not going straight into the garbage is to make it as helpful as possible. While everyone has his or her own style of providing written feedback, below are a few solid Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to teacher feedback.

  • Try to balance the salty with the sweet—especially with younger or struggling writers. The writing process is complex, intimidating, and laborious for many young learners. When students are just starting out, a little encouragement can go a long way. This is not to suggest that feedback must only contain vapid or disingenuous fluff—not at all. The critical aspect of teacher feedback is what the students truly need. However, if we want them to invest in the time of reading, reflecting, and revising with the feedback we provide, we must be sure to draw them in as opposed to turning them off with only negative feedback. I not-so-fondly remember my own experiences where, even as an elementary student, my writing was more or less ripped to shreds by only harsh criticism. Yes, critical feedback is important, but we must also be sure to shed light on what the writer did correctly, as to provide a glimmer of enthusiasm, optimism, or positive reinforcement.

  • Focus your feedback on a few major takeaways from earlier instruction. For instance, if a main objective of the unit is that students will be able to support a claim with textual evidence and interpretive reasoning, then focus your feedback and critique around how successfully they attempted that objective. If introductions and conclusions were the focus, be sure to provide most of the feedback in that area of the paper. This not only makes your life easier by helping to focus the written feedback, but it also allows for students to hone in on a few significant writing skills at a time. The feedback will seem less tedious on your end, and less harsh from a student’s perspective.

  • Keep comments clear, but concise, by using highlighter functions or editing symbols in Google Classroom. One benefit to the abundance of technology that we educators have at our disposal is the fact that written (or typed) feedback can save teachers time, while providing students with comments and suggestions in real time. With the various digital platforms for students to submit writing assignments, students no longer have to wait for the return of tangible essays with handwritten feedback. Now students can simply login from home or school to view a teacher’s comments, critiques, and suggestions.

  • Use the editing or highlighting function in Google Classroom to note areas in a paper where students need spelling, punctuation, or grammatical revision. For students that need reminders, I may insert the first few missing commas. For others, however, I may simply highlight the areas in their paper where they are missing punctuation. This way, students will know where to include a mark, but must assess their own writing to identify exactly which punctuation mark fits properly in a given highlighted area.

  • Talk through the feedback to both put students at ease and answer follow-up questions that they may have. Like many things, sometimes our feedback can get lost in translation. If this is the case, consider setting aside a segment of class time where students can conference one-on-one with you about their specific feedback and suggestions. This allows students the opportunity to fully grasp the feedback to ensure that their plans to revise will in fact improve upon their first draft.

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Myths Debunked

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Myth: Eating disorders develop during teen years.

This is simply not the case. While the average age of onset is around 17 years old, the pendulum can swing further in both directions. Long after their teen years, people dealing with emotional trauma may develop an eating disorder. Even more alarming are the statistics related to girls at the younger end of the age spectrum. In recent years, girls as young as 5 have been known to comment on their own weight and make mention of high-fat foods and calorie content. Another common misconception is that men and boys do not suffer from eating disorders. In fact, 1 in 4 cases of an eating disorder involve a male. The truth is, eating disorders can develop in any gender at any age if insecurities and complexes emerge about body image.

Myth: Eating disorders are dramatic ploys for attention.

Truthfully, the last thing that a person who suffers from an eating disorder wants is attention. Eating disorders are deeply rooted in shame and embarrassment. Thus, people who suffer from these conditions will likely hide their behaviors and eating habits by dining alone or at odd hours of the day. The secrecy behind such disorders makes it especially difficult for family and friends to detect a problem until it is too late. Many sufferers will go as far as to wear oversized or bulky clothing in order to conceal their rapid weight loss. Because of the shame and humiliation attached to eating disorders, it is detrimental to brush the behaviors off as mere “cries for attention.”

Myth: You can successfully coax someone into eating.

Because of the complexities surrounding eating disorders, it often hard for family and friends to understand the struggle. A common reaction is to say, “Why don’t they just eat?” This seems like a reasonable question—if someone is literally starving themselves, just get them to eat something, right? Wrong. Successful treatment plans involve changing the way that a person feels about herself—the eating issues are fixed only after the mental and emotional issues are remedied. This means that no amount of persuasion, bribery, or coaxing will cure an eating disorder. Furthermore, simply calling someone “skinny” or telling her to eat a cheeseburger will not work. In fact, these types of judgmental comments are just as harmful as calling someone “fat.”

Myth: Eating disorders are all about the food.

This is far from the truth, in fact. Eating disorders rarely have to do with a person’s relationship with food. Instead, the eating disorder manifests itself after other psychological problems or underlying emotional issues arise. Often times, an eating disorder is rooted in a deeper psychological condition, such as depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, or OCD. The self-discipline and food restriction then becomes a means of maintaining control. When everything else is out of their hands, sufferers become fixated on the one thing that they can manipulate—their food intake. Anorexia specifically involves a major power struggle between body and mind. People who suffer from anorexia experience hunger and cravings and want to eat normally with friends; however, they simply cannot allow themselves to eat. They cannot give up the control. It is a mental battle of self-will in which winning and losing are two sides of the same coin.

Eating disorders account for the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. If you or someone you know suffers from an eating disorder, seek help. With proper therapy and treatment, recovery is possible.

Parents Play an Important Role in the Anti-Bullying Movement

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No Name-Calling Week is a holiday that recognizes the importance of acceptance while taking anti-bullying measures in schools and having honest discussions about the severity of bullying.

As an educator, I am all too aware of the impact that name-calling and other bullying can have on an adolescent. However, as we all know, teens are not exactly forthcoming about their emotions. Parents especially may be left in the dark in terms of happenings at school and with peers. Moreover, the accessibility of technology and smartphones has made it even easier for adolescents to bully one another. Snapchat, instagram, vine, and other social media forums are often laden with unkind, sometimes downright harsh, remarks and comments.

Whether you personally experienced bullying as a teen or not, you likely know of someone who has been affected by bullying. It is important that parents understand just how serious this issue can be for a young person. Hormones, emotions, and peer pressures create a breeding ground for insecurity. Bullies often exploit these already-vulnerable teens, making life significantly harder in and out of school. While teens may be intent on guarding their private lives from their parents, it is vital that parents know the signs of a bully and a victim.

Signs that your teen may be a victim of bullying:

  • Unexplainable injuries, or an attempt to hide or make excuses for odd injuries
  • Lost or destroyed clothes, phones, tablets, jewelry, etc.
  • Complaining of frequent headaches or stomach aches; attempting to miss school suddenly
  • Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating after school (often a sign that a child is avoiding lunch in the cafeteria)
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares; oversleeping at any opportunity
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, sports, or other extracurriculars
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations; skipping plans or ignoring invitations from peers
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem
  • Prolonged depressed mood or talks of suicide

Signs that your teen may be bullying others:

  • Frequently in trouble for fighting or verbally attacking others
  • Sudden change of peer group
  • Noticeable increase in aggressive behavior
  • Behavioral and/or academic trouble at school
  • Impulsive, irresponsible, or reckless behavior
  • Overly concerned with popularity and new peer groups

Of course, you know your child better than anyone–and you know their level of openness with you. It is okay to have open and honest conversations about school that focus on social topics, as opposed to simply asking only about academics. While autonomy is a major part of teen development, there are plenty of occasions when parents can and should get involved. Cases of bullying are certainly one of those instances.

For more information on how parents can discuss issues of bullying and school violence with teens, visit the link below.

http://www.violencepreventionworks.org/public/bullying_tips_for_parents.page

 

Listen Up: Auditory Processing

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It is Audio Appreciation Month! September reminds us to be grateful for an ability that some of us may rarely think about: the ability to hear. Of course, we hear sounds all the time. We are constantly receiving inputs from the environment, but the ability to absorb and process sound is actually quite complex. The process involves the outer, middle, and inner ear structures, as well as hair cells and the auditory nerve that transports information to the brain.

Additionally, a surprising fact about hearing is that, “the human ear is a fully developed part of our bodies at birth and responds to sounds that are very faint as well as sounds that are very loud. Even before birth, infants respond to sound” (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association). While in utero, babies are able to hear sounds from within and outside of the womb. The auditory pathways, however, are still immature at this stage. This means that, while the baby is able to hear, processing and perceptible abilities have not fully developed.  

The magical aspect of the development of the auditory system is its plasticity, especially when considering our constantly changing environments and experiences. The auditory system is regularly adapting to process the various inputs we receive at any given moment.

But what happens if there is a glitch in the system? Since the auditory system stretches way beyond simply hearing, the ripple effect could greatly impact other areas of development.

Since hearing is a large aspect of human communication, obstacles related to hearing impairments may impact a child’s educational development. Specific areas of concern in the classroom for children with hearing impairments include:

  • mastering that subjects of grammar, spelling and vocabulary
  • taking notes while listening to lectures
  • participating in classroom discussions
  • watching educational videos
  • presenting oral reports

The complicated aspect is that a hearing issue may not be related to the actual hearing process at all. Instead, the auditory system may be impacted by a processing impairment. Auditory processing disorder, also called a central auditory processing disorder, is sometimes difficult to identify. Symptoms of APD are strikingly similar to symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). APD and ADHD can coexist; however, the slight distinctions between the two disorders are sometimes overlooked, resulting in misdiagnosis. Since symptoms of ADHD and APD are so similar, it is imperative that a child’s condition be thoroughly explored to ensure the best possible plan for treatment and therapy.

While APDs are not necessarily preventable, noise-induced hearing loss is. In order to prevent future hearing loss, it is important to monitor your child’s use of electronics and earbuds. Volume is not the only culprit; prolonged listening can harm hearing as well. Some safety tips include monitoring the length of your listening, monitoring the volume at which you are listening (no more than 60% of the maximum volume), standing away from loud speakers at concerts and sporting events or wear earplugs, and taking frequent short breaks from loud venues.

You should, of course, always listen to your body as well. If you notice that you begin straining to hear conversations, phone calls, or television shows, you may be suffering from minor hearing loss. Likewise, if you struggle to distinguish background noise from other sounds or conversations, you may also be experiencing hearing loss. Be kind to your ears by turning the volume down and getting regular hearing checks.

 

Therapy for Special Needs Children

Parents of children with special needs are bombarded with an overwhelming array of therapies and activities. Just sorting through the options can be overwhelming! Even within the realm of equine-assisted activities, there are a broad range of options. Here’s a simple overview to help make sense of the choices.

Therapeutic Riding
Also referred to as adaptive riding, therapeutic riding is designed to teach riding skills. Interactive lesson plans are tailored to the needs of the child. Learning to ride inherently involves working on skills such as core strength, balance, coordination, following directions, and sequencing. Interaction with the horse, instructor, and volunteers offers space to practice social skills and develop meaningful relationships. And the confidence gained from directing the movements of a 1200 pound animal is incredible.

Hippotherapy
Hippotherapy is a medical treatment strategy used by physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech-language pathologists. They use the horse’s movement as part of an integrated treatment plan to achieve functional outcomes. Horses have a unique three-dimensional movement that simulates that of the human gait.

Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy
Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy incorporates horses experientially for emotional growth and learning. It is a collaborative effort between a licensed therapist and a horse professional working with the child and horses to address treatment goals. EFP is experiential in nature. This means that children learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with the horses, and then processing feelings, behaviors, and patterns.

Equine-Facilitated Learning
Equine-Facilitated Learning is an educational model whereby children are able to learn communication and life skills through interacting with and caring for horses. This provides tremendous opportunity to learn about commitment, work ethic, non-verbal communication, and other life skills, as well as experiencing gains in confidence and self-esteem. Goals are tailored to the needs and expectations of the child and may incorporate other areas as appropriate.

Great and Small offers year-round therapeutic riding and speech-language therapy utilizing hippotherapy, as well as summer camps incorporating both therapeutic riding and hippotherapy. EFP and EFL are coming soon! For more information visit www.greatandsmallride.org or contact Program Director Megan Ferry at 301-349-0075 or mferry@greatandsmallride.org.