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How Occupational Therapy for Kids Benefits the Whole Family

May 23, 2024
5 min Read
Creighton University Staff

How Occupational Therapy for Kids Benefits the Whole Family

As a practice, occupational therapy (OT) focuses on helping clients develop, recover, improve, and maintain the skills they need to perform daily functions. The core goal is to promote a client’s independence by implementing adaptations, activities, and exercises that can help improve their quality of life.
Occupational therapy for kids — or “pediatric OT” — operates within this same scope. However, the methods of therapy and treatment goals may look slightly different than what an adult client might experience.
We spoke with Bobbi Greiner, OTD, OTR/L, BCP director of Occupational Therapy Fellowship Programs and associate professor at Creighton University, to learn more about how pediatric occupational therapists work alongside guardians and caregivers to help children thrive.

What does a pediatric occupational therapist do?

OT practitioners aim to assist clients in performing their daily tasks — or occupations — to the greatest of their abilities. Pediatric occupational therapists strive to help children gain independence by working to strengthen the development of fine motor, sensory, and visual motor skills they need to function and socialize.
A child’s occupations, Greiner explains, are very different to those of an adult. Their job is to play, learn, and interact with other children — to be a child, yes, but also to be a sibling and classmate. “Depending on what the child’s limitations might be, those occupations can be really challenging,” she says.
Pediatric occupational therapists evaluate each child’s current skills related to play, school performance, and daily activities based on what is developmentally appropriate for that age group. These OT assessments help inform the adjustments needed to enable children to perform the daily activities they might otherwise find challenging.
“We are looking for participation in daily occupations such as play, school tasks, and ADLs, or activities of daily living,” Greiner offers. “We assess fine and gross motor skills, sensory processing, emotional regulation, visual motor integration, and more.”
She emphasizes that in pediatric OT, it’s essential to focus on a child’s abilities rather than highlighting what they can’t do. “When I teach occupational therapy students about this, we talk about a strengths-based approach,” Greiner explains. “Rather than accommodating for a deficit, our purpose is to facilitate adjustments based on a child’s skills and needs. How can we adjust the world around them to meet what they can do?”
“Children are still developing skills — there is typically more of a focus on development rather than restoring skills that were lost,” she continues. “A big part of pediatric OT practice is facilitating skill development for kids whose brains and bodies were born with different needs and abilities.”
Some common goals addressed by pediatric OT include the following:

  • Improving motor skills
  • Learning self-care skills, such as bathing, brushing teeth, and feeding themselves
  • Maintaining positive behaviors in all environments
  • Strengthening attention and social skills
  • Developing increased balance, strength, and reflex integration

Pediatric occupational therapists primarily work in outpatient and school environments, though some are employed at in-patient facilities. “Early intervention is another setting pediatric occupational therapists work in,” Greiner adds. “This is intended to take place in the home or natural environment so that therapists can coach the parents and caregivers on things to do with their child’s skill development every day.”

When should a child visit a pediatric occupational therapist?

In some cases, a child will have already received a diagnosis by the time they begin working with a pediatric occupational therapist. But, in others, OT assessments can help determine a pediatrician’s next steps. While OT is not a diagnosing profession, occupational therapists can contribute to the greater healthcare team’s diagnosing process.
“When a child is referred to an occupational therapist, often it’s because the parent or pediatrician notices a developmental difference with the child compared to other kids their age,” Greiner explains. “This sometimes presents as fine and gross motor skills. Other times it might be behavior-related skills, difficulty regulating emotions, or issues related to sensory processing.”
Children with the following conditions or challenges are at risk for developmental delays:

  • Birth injuries/defects
  • Sensory processing disorders
  • Traumatic brain/spinal cord injuries
  • Learning struggles
  • Behavioral challenges
  • Autism and other pervasive development disorders
  • Cerebral Palsy and other chronic illnesses
  • Down syndrome and other genetic conditions that affect a child’s body and brain 

How do pediatric occupational therapists work with caregivers?

When it comes to OT for kids, collaboration with guardians and caregivers is an essential part of the process, from assessment to intervention.
“Parents and caregivers are the experts on their child. Their lived experience provides incredibly important insight into what treatment plan might be best,” Greiner says. She explains that understanding the caregiver’s goals for their child and learning what the child likes and what they’re good at, is just as important as discovering what might be going wrong.
“Once we understand as much as we can about the child’s story and the family’s story, we can provide education from the OT perspective on what might be beneficial in their day-to-day lives to help their child be a kid just like everyone else,” she continues.
According to Greiner, an effective OT treatment plan can have a positive impact on the entire household because “it helps facilitate more flow and function as a family unit.”

You can make an impact as an occupational therapist

Pediatric occupational therapists dedicate their careers to helping children move through the world with confidence, functioning to the best of their abilities.

While some of the primary goals of pediatric OT are to help children function and socialize, it’s equally important to acknowledge the greater impact this can have on children emotionally. Equipping them with these skills often boosts the child’s self-esteem, instilling within them a longstanding feeling of accomplishment.
These are all adjustments that can benefit the family as a whole.
If you’re eager to make a monumental difference in the lives of children, you could thrive as a pediatric occupational therapist. To learn more about your options, visit Creighton University’s Department of Occupational Therapy page today.

Creighton also has a post-professional pediatric fellowship with a focus on clinical practice and academia.


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