When I first graduated, quite some time ago now, I was frustrated at what I interpreted as a lack of support from educators in following through with the long lists of recommendations I made. In my naivety, I couldn’t understand why teachers weren’t following through with the ideas which I knew would help their children make quicker progress.
After working alongside many patience teachers and teaching assistants, I came to realise the biggest challenge to implementing my recommendations was not a lack of want, but a lack of time. In addition to the lack of time, there are just so many things competing for time throughout the school day. Fast forward 15 years, and I no longer give out pages of recommendations!
In this post, I would like to share with you ten strategies I have found which make it much easier to include the occupational therapy (OT) suggestions into a classroom day to day.
Strategy One: Morning exercise session
Often, children with poor gross motor skills will receive OT programmes designed to help with their balance or postural control. Or, children with sensory processing challenges will have ‘movement breaks’ recommended on their OT programme. A simple way to include move movement into your classroom is to have a morning exercise session. It doesn’t need to take all morning and it could be just five to ten minutes. However, I have found it is easier to schedule for the whole class.
Once it’s on the schedule, deciding what to do doesn’t have to be hard work. If you have a programme from the OT you could use those activities. Twinkl has movement break and yoga cards which you can print out. Super Duper Publications sells packs of sensory diet and movement cards and the ‘Yoga Pretzel’ cards are a great resource. Also, if you have access to YouTube, Cosmic Kids Yoga and GoNoodle have some fantastic movement videos. And for younger children, Debbie Doo and The Learning Station have easier options.
Tip Two: Before your handwriting lesson, add in finger warm-ups
This is another whole class idea and it only needs to take five minutes. However, if the OT has suggested additional pencil activities or worksheets, or, if they provided fine motor skill activities, a great time to do these is straight before your handwriting session. This helps for two reasons. Firstly, it provides a warm-up for the children’s fingers which in some cases can help to prepare them to hold their pencil. Secondly, worksheets develop pencil control can help to reinforce the skills needed to write letters and words. Again, you only need five minutes but a little bit of regular practise will likely have a bigger impact over time than sporadic or no practise.
If you need ideas for handwriting in particular, the National Handwriting Association has some useful resources. If you’re looking for specific ideas to help a child with their pencil grasp our programme, ‘Supporting Pencil Grasp Development,’ could be helpful. As an extra resource, if you’re confused by the large number of pencil grips that are available then I would recommend looking at our pencil grip review page.
Strategy Three: Double up – Use PE and lunch time clubs for gross motor skill development
Some recommendations within OT programmes include activities using therapy balls or larger equipment, or they include throwing and catching tasks. These are much harder to complete in a classroom setting. A suggestion for these activities is to schedule them to your PE warm-up or to create a lunch time motor skills club. The aim is to integrate them into lessons and activities that are already happening rather than putting them into the ‘another thing to do’ basket. If they can be added to the weekly routine, then it is much more likely they will happen, and happen with ease!
Tip Four: Make movement breaks simple – set up a Movement Station
Occupational therapists support many children with sensory processing challenges. Typically, the children that are identified and referred for help are sensory seekers. Sensory seekers regularly look for higher amounts of sensory feedback. They are the children who rock on their chairs, chew their collars and always fidget about.
A very common recommendation given for these children are movement breaks. The idea behind a movement break is that the child has an opportunity to receive the extra sensory information their brain needs to help them to then sit and focus. Often, due to staffing, it can be hard to organise times for movement breaks. Also, as children get older sometimes they don’t want to be singled out or look different to their peers by having to leave the classroom.
One way I have gotten around the above challenges successfully, is to create a movement station. This probably sounds much more glorious than it actually is. In many classrooms it has been small section of unoccupied floor. Sometimes, a corridor space has been used. Occasionally, there is a larger space available but this is definitely not the norm.
What should we do in the movement station?
In the movement station there needs to be clear instructions and choices of movement activities children can do. If you have a programme from an OT, this is where you can include pictures of the child doing those activities. The Twinkl, Super Duper, and Yoga Pretzel card activities recommended above, in strategy one, are also appropriate. Typically, I would suggest having four to five activities that the child can work through in a sequence two or three times before coming back to their desk.
If a teacher sees that a child needs to move, they can direct them to the movement station. And, I have also worked with children who have been able to self-direct themselves to the station appropriately. Each child is different and usual classroom behaviour expectations still apply. If the child is not using the area as it is intended, then it will need to be reviewed. However, when working effectively, a movement station can be a great resource for the whole class.
Number Five: Set up a calm space
Like movement breaks, calm spaces, or chill out time are commonly recommended for children with sensory processing differences and those with autism. The main tip for a calm space, is that it needs to be calm. Sometimes these spaces are set up with the best intention, but they are not very calm. Using a corridor space might work in some schools, however in others the corridor might be more distracting for a student. The book corner can sometimes be a good option. The space needs to be distraction free and quiet.
Also, ensure that there are activities in the space, or can be taken to the space, that help the student to calm down. For some, this might be a book. For others it might be a puzzle. Sensory items like fidget toys, weighted products and visual timers can be helpful. Each child is an individual so there is no one size fits all strategy. Students should be aware that the calm space is there to help them to regulate, it is not a place where they can mess about. They should know that they are not in trouble, but that they are helping themselves to get ready for learning.
Suggestion Six: Consider a self regulation programme
To bring it all together you could consider a self regulation programme, like Zones of Regulation, the Incredible 5 Point Scale or How Does Your Engine Run. These help students to independently monitor their level of focus. The programmes use colours and numbers to help students to identify their own state of alertness. Then, they help to teach students what strategies to help them with their focus in class.
Tip Seven: Include the whole class
Many suggestions made by occupational therapists will be relevant for more than one child in your class. All children need to learn to self regulate. All children need to be focused and ready to learn. Whilst the strategies which work for one child won’t be exactly the same for the next, the basic principles are the same. It is the same with general fine and gross motor activity programmes. Whilst they will be of real benefit to the child they were written for, in most cases they will also help other children in the class. The more you can integrate the strategies into the classroom routine, the easier they will be to remember and to complete.
Recommendation Eight: Don’t be afraid to use behaviour management
Just because a therapist has made a recommendation, it doesn’t mean the classroom rules don’t apply. If a student is not using a recommended piece of equipment or a strategy appropriately, you are still allowed to set behaviour expectations. The earlier you can set these the better. It may be that the equipment needs to be removed for a short time, in order for the student to understand they need to use it correctly.
Tip Nine: If you’re unsure ask for clarification
Suggestions made by the occupational therapist should help the student to engage in their learning. If they are causing more disruption than helping then please feed this back to the therapist. If you’re not sure what they are for, or how to use them correctly, please ask. In addition, if the student has made progress and their plan needs updating let the therapist know. By doing this the student will make quicker progress as they will be being reviewed as required.
Number Ten: Easy ways to include messy play
Another common sensory challenge, especially in autism, is touch sensitivity. Occupational therapists often recommend messy play as a treatment idea. This is often easier to do in an Early Year’s classroom but much harder to do once the child starts Reception.
A challenge for some Early Year’s practitioners is that the children who have touch sensitivity typically avoid the messy play area! They don’t go near the finger paint or play dough and will avoid the sand pit. These children can sometimes benefit from a ‘Now and Next’ timetable which includes a small amount of time seated at the activity they may avoid and then time for their usual free flow play. Starting with dry textures is recommended. Water play can be a good segue into other textures. It can also be slowly added, by the child, to dry textures to change the consistency and feel.
If you have children that are not particularly engaged with their environment, e.g., a child with autism, then a sensory joint attention group may help. During joint attention groups, children need to sit and watch a motivating activity happen before they can have a turn. Different sensory items can be used and children can take turns with the item in sequence. Our resource, Sensory Group Book 1, outlines further recommendations if you needed specific protocol.
Reception and Year One
In Reception and Year One subjects like art, cooking and measuring in maths offer opportunities to include messy textures. Also, allowing the child to help to prepare fruit, e.g., peeling bananas or clementines, is an easy way to include messiness into their daily routine. In addition, Forest School can provide some fantastic opportunities for sensory play.
In summary – occupational therapy in the classroom
I know it’s not always easy to include the recommendations outside professionals provide into the classroom. In my experience, if the recommendations can be embedded into the daily timetable they are more likely to be done. I hope that you have found at least one of the suggestions helpful!
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