Pediatric Occupational Therapy: A Complete Overview

Pediatric occupational therapy is a rewarding specialty, providing many opportunities to truly change the life of a child. A pediatric occupational therapist works with infants and children with a variety of disabilities and conditions. It’s an important role and one that improves not only the patient’s quality of life but also provides support and encouragement to their family.

What Is Pediatric Occupational Therapy?

Pediatric occupational therapists work with patients of all ages, from tiny preemies to young adults. The role of pediatric occupational therapists changes depending on the patient and their diagnosis. While they most often treat children with conditions like cerebral palsy, autism, or Down syndrome, they also work with children with rare genetic conditions and those recovering from life-changing treatments and illnesses.

In addition to activities of daily living (ADLs), like eating and getting dressed, the occupational therapist role expands into helping children overcome barriers to participating in age-appropriate tasks, like education or play. They focus on a range of things, including fine motor skills, sensory input, attention, and following directions.

The role of a pediatric occupational therapist also includes a lot of caregiver training. They teach parents how to do everything from transferring a child from a bed to a wheelchair to applying splints and orthotics.

Why Do Kids Need Occupational Therapy?

Although occupational therapy for kids is similar to occupational therapy for adults, it is a unique field with its own challenges, techniques, and victories.

There are many reasons why kids need occupational therapy. Here are just a few:

  • Delays in fine motor skills, like handwriting or using scissors
  • Difficulties with movement and coordination, like jumping, balancing, and running
  • Poor visual-motor skills, like tracking objects, hand-eye coordination
  • Cognitive delays, including problem-solving skills, memory, attention, following instructions, and organization
  • Sensory integration issues
  • Delays in play and social interaction skills
  • Deficits in basic self-care tasks, like feeding, dressing, and toileting

Occupational Therapy Assessments For Kids

​​Occupational therapy assessments for kids vary depending on the child’s age and development. An occupational therapist in this field must choose the right type of assessment, depending on the child’s age, diagnosis, developmental level, and needs.

Some standardized assessment models are:

  • Beery-Buktenica Developmental Test of Visual-Motor Integration: this assessment addresses visual-motor integration skills and is used in both clinical settings and schools. The occupational therapist asks the child to draw increasingly complex shapes, starting with a simple line then advancing from there. It’s appropriate for children of all ages, including those as young as 2.
  • Bruininks-Oseretsky Test of Motor Proficiency: this assessment is used in both clinical settings and schools. It’s for kids between ages 4 and 21 and measures fine and gross motor skills, specifically fine motor control, strength and agility, manual dexterity, and body coordination. Some of the specific tasks include cutting, dribbling a ball, and copying shapes that increase in complexity.
  • Developmental Assessment of Young Children: this assessment is used in early intervention and is appropriate for children from birth to age 6. It is often done as a team assessment with occupational therapists, special education teachers, physical therapists, and speech and language pathologists. It focuses on adaptive behavior, communication, cognition, social-emotional development, and physical development.
  • Sensory Processing Measure: this tool applies to children ages 5 to 12, though there is also a preschool version for kids between 2 and 5. It consists of two questionnaires to be filled out by adults who frequently interact with the child, typically a parent and a teacher. These forms focus on how the child processes auditory, visual, and tactile stimuli and more.
  • Peabody Developmental Motor Scales: this assessment is a staple in early intervention and focuses on children ages 2 to 5. It measures gross and fine motor skills, testing things like reflexes, body control, grasping, locomotion, object manipulation, and visual-motor integration. What is unique about this tool is that you can adapt it to suit the age of the child, and some of the assessments can apply to children as young as 11 months old.

Occupational Therapy Games For Kids

Occupational therapy games for kids are beneficial for many reasons. Not only do they improve balance, motor planning, and movement, but they also make it fun. When kids are engaged and enjoying themselves, they are much more likely to benefit from the therapy. Games are also a way to make therapy accessible for families, taking away a little of the anxiety and making it an easy, fun thing to do together.

There are many types of games to choose from, including occupational therapy board games and occupational therapy games online. These games may seem simple, but they have many benefits for children. Here are ten examples:

  1. String Cheerios or Froot Loops onto a piece of string to create an edible necklace.
  2. Cut various shapes out of construction paper to use as shadow puppets.
  3. Make a few different paper airplanes and see which one flies the farthest.
  4. Draw funny faces on people in magazines and newspapers.
  5. Cut paper into thin strips and then tear it into pieces to make graffiti.
  6. Have an old-fashioned egg and spoon race.
  7. Do jigsaw puzzles or make your own.
  8. Write the alphabet or numbers on a whiteboard and ask the child to erase a certain number. For example, you could ask the child, “Erase the number that is the same as 1 +1,” or, “Erase the letter at the beginning of the word dog.”
  9. Get a bag of colorful pom-poms and have the child sort them by color using tweezers.
  10. Cut open a tennis ball and glue on some googly eyes. Then, ask the child to feed the ball coins, pompoms, or buttons by squeezing it to open the mouth.

How Is Pediatric Occupational Therapy Different Than Occupational Therapy?

Although they are rooted in the same principles, pediatric OT is much different than occupational therapy for adults. The biggest difference between the two specialties is the goals therapists set for each group.

Occupational therapy for adults is usually necessary for adults who have had an injury or disability, and the goal of therapy is to get them either back to baseline or to a place where they can function as independently as possible in their daily lives. For example, an occupational therapist might help someone who has an injury relearn how to type or write so they can go back to work, or they may help someone who has had a stroke relearn how to dress or hold a spoon.

Children who require occupational therapy usually do not have the same needs as adults. Pediatric OT focuses more on developing the skills needed to be a kid, specifically the things they need to be able to do to play, learn, and socialize. This could include working on fine motor skills, like holding a pencil or tying their shoes, or working on sensory processing issues. Parents are also heavily involved with pediatric OT sessions and continue to do the work when the child is at home.

Where Do Pediatric Occupational Therapists Work?

Occupational therapy job settings vary drastically, as do the kids they work with. A school-based occupational therapist works with a much different group of children than one who works in an inpatient setting. Here are a few places where pediatric OTs work.

  • Early intervention: for young children from birth to age 3. It usually takes place in the home or a community setting. The goal is to identify any developmental issues early to help children meet their developmental milestones or adapt when necessary.
  • NICUs: NICUs or neonatal intensive care units are special units in hospitals for high-needs newborns, some of whom are premature. The role of an OT in this setting usually involves positioning, feeding, and caregiver training.
  • School-based: pediatric occupational therapists who work in schools commonly work with students with disabilities. All therapies done in schools must work toward overcoming learning challenges and the student’s ability to participate in school.
  • Outpatient: in this setting, OTs work with children with a wide range of disabilities, including some that are severe. Treatment is usually scheduled every week, and therapy focuses on helping children overcome their challenges in a playful way. Most children with sensory processing issues receive treatment in an outpatient setting.
  • Inpatient: hospital inpatients are typically coping with a new disabling condition, like cancer, burns, or a spinal cord injury, but they may also work with kids who have chronic conditions that have increased needs.

Types of Pediatric Occupational Therapy Roles

There are many ways to work in pediatric occupational therapy, and all of them play an important role in making sure children get the care they need. In addition to being an occupational therapist, some of the other roles in this field include:

  • OT assistant: works under the supervision of an occupational therapist. They do a lot of direct work with patients, following the treatment plan developed by the occupational therapist.
  • Rehabilitation liaison: responsible for finding OT patients for a facility. They work with hospitals, schools, and patients to understand the patient’s needs and determine whether they’re a good fit for the facility.
  • Occupational Therapy Director: manages a pediatric occupational unit, clinic, or facility. This role is primarily administrative, though the director is usually a trained occupational therapist and may still work directly with patients.

Closing Thoughts

Pediatric occupational therapy is a challenging but rewarding field. If you’re interested in a job in this specialty, Sunbelt can help you find the right one for you.

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