Pediatric occupational therapy focuses on empowering kids, including those with special needs, to navigate their daily lives more effectively. Occupational therapy (OT) is a holistic profession that uses everyday activities (occupations) to promote health, well-being, and participation.1 Pediatric OT focuses on helping children from age zero to twenty-one participate in daily activities at home, school, and in their communities to support them in living their best lives.
What Does a Pediatric OT Do?
Occupational therapy practitioners (occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants) use "occupations" as a treatment method or intervention. What are the "occupations" of infants and children?
Daily occupations for children include:
- Bathing and grooming
- Toileting and toilet hygiene
Occupational therapy practitioners (OTPs) help kids adapt to or overcome social, emotional, and physical barriers that impact their independence.2 OTPs help kids play, improve their academic functioning, and participate in activities of daily living (ADLs) to the best of their ability. Additionally, OTPs work closely with parents, family members, caregivers, and school teams to provide caregiver education and support.
The primary difference between occupational therapy for adults and children is age—all forms of OT address function, life skills, and participation.3 However, since the occupations of a child are much different than the occupations of an adult, the activities used to strive toward meeting goals tend to be much more fun.
The first pediatric occupational therapy visit includes a comprehensive evaluation and establishing goals, expected outcomes, and a care plan. In the initial review or assessment, an occupational therapist may complete standardized tests, conduct formal and informal observations, and communicate closely with the child's parents or caregivers to fully understand the child's strengths and needs.
Where Do Pediatric OTPs Work?
- Outpatient clinics
- Private and public schools
- Daycare facilities
- Specialty clinics
- Primary care and pediatric offices
- Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU)
- Children's family homes
Pediatric occupational therapists often work as part of a team with other healthcare and rehabilitation professionals, such as speech and language pathologists, physical therapists, psychologists, nurses, and pediatricians.
Given the diverse settings and rich opportunities in pediatric occupational therapy, you might be wondering about the variety of OT jobs available. If you're feeling inspired to explore the different career paths that pediatric OT offers, now is the perfect time to start.
What Types of Children Benefit From OT?
Occupational therapy practitioners provide support and intervention for various conditions. The list of possibilities is virtually endless; however, the more common types of children who benefit from OT include children with:
- Premature birth
- Congenital disabilities or injury
- Feeding difficulties, such as difficulty latching on to a breast or bottle
- Infants with torticollis
- Feeding challenges, such as picky eating or oral motor delays
- Sensory processing issues
- Self-regulation deficits
- Fine and visual motor delays
- Learning delays and disabilities
- Syndromes, such as Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome and Fragile X Syndrome)
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- Intellectual disabilities
- Mental health challenges
- Behavioral challenges
- Attention disorders (ADD and ADHD)
- Orthopedic hand and arm injuries, such as fractures and sports injuries
- Burn injuries
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI) and concussions
- Neurological conditions
- Spina bifida
- Cerebral palsy
Kids don't have to be formally diagnosed with an injury or disability or be eligible for special education to benefit from occupational therapy. Some kids need extra help with their everyday skills, such as developing social-emotional skills, managing clothing, or maintaining attention.
Key Areas of Focus in Occupational Therapy for Kids
- Develop or improve fine motor skills for grasping and releasing, using a pencil, keyboarding, using utensils, opening containers, managing buttons and zippers on clothing, and participating in other daily activities.
- Improve eye-hand coordination (visual motor skills) for copying from near and far points, using scissors, and drawing shapes.
- Use adaptive or specialty equipment, such as wheelchairs, dressing sticks, pencil grips, and communication devices.
- Learn to recognize their emotions and apply strategies to manage their responses appropriately.
- Develop self-advocacy skills, such as asking for help.
- Use strategies to manage schedules, transitions, and daily routines successfully.
- Learn adaptations to prevent sensory overload to increase participation in home, school, and community activities.
- Follow multi-step directions.
- Develop alternative ways to communicate for children who are non-verbal.
- Develop healthy eating skills and overcome sensory eating challenges.
- Help parents hold and position a child for successful nursing and feeding.
Kids meet their occupational therapy goals when they can perform the activities across settings. For example, suppose a child is working on mastering self-regulation skills. In that case, they need to successfully use calming strategies in the clinic during sessions at home, at school, on school buses, and at community events.
What Activities Are Used for Pediatric OT?
Activities used for occupational therapy for children are play-based or occupation-based. Therapy activities must be as enjoyable as possible for children to be motivated to participate in therapy sessions and make gains toward their goals. Kids don't want to feel like they're going to the doctor or working on their homework. Kids' therapy needs to be fun and engaging. Pediatric occupational therapy promotes creativity and an opportunity to "play" with kids all day!
- Reaching for and grasping toys
- Practicing drinking from a cup
- Scooping items (like toys or pop-poms) up and placing them into containers
- Practicing handwriting on adapted paper
- Tying with an adapted keyboard
- Practicing putting on socks and other clothing
- Practicing brushing teeth
- Playing board games to practice fine and visual motor skills, taking turns, and following direction
- Using fun gym equipment like swings, trampolines, and obstacle courses
- Touching and wearing different materials to reduce hypersensitivity
- Doing puzzles
- Playing with cause-and-effect toys (push buttons for light or music)
- Kicking a ball, playing catch, doing "animal walks" on all fours
- Arts and crafts for fine motor skills and sequencing steps
An Individualized Journey to Independence
Adapting language and communication skills to meet the child's developmental stage and specific needs is essential.
Every child progresses at their own pace. Some kids will recover and be on their way; some will participate in therapy throughout their childhood as they change and grow.
When working with children, it is essential to consider family dynamics, social and economic needs, and cultural influences.
Start Your Pediatric OT Journey
In summary, occupational therapy is a rewarding profession that serves to help people overcome barriers and challenges to participate fully in everything they need and want to do in life. Pediatric occupational therapy can be exceptionally fulfilling as OT practitioners make a significant difference in children's daily lives and the lives of their families and caregivers.
So, if you're ready to take your occupational therapy skills on an adventure, to learn, to grow, and to impact lives in various settings, we invite you to join us. Sign up today to travel with Trusted and begin a journey that promises professional fulfillment and personal enrichment. Together, let's make a difference, one child, one family, one community at a time.