How OT's and PT's Support Students in Schools

How OT's and PT's Support Students in Schools
teacher supplies

How Occupational Therapists and Physical Therapists Support Students in Schools

February 2022 | Issue #28

Each child is unique and has a unique learning profile. This is not limited to cognitive skills, but often includes physical abilities and emotional competencies. Often, students develop skills at different rates, but generally close to their expected timeline. Some students, however, require additional support from qualified professionals to make progress in their academic curriculum. All students should be able to access their school environment and education.  This includes sitting, standing, walking, jumping, running, and playing on the playground equipment.  If a student has a particular diagnosis, their condition might make it more difficult for them to participate in these activities.  It doesn’t mean that they can’t do it, but that they may need more individualized support to do so.  This is where physical therapists come in. Physical therapists are specifically trained in how the body functions and moves, allowing them to help students develop gross motor skills.

Additionally, occupational therapists often receive referrals for students that are having difficulty with handwriting. Occupational therapists are skilled in addressing the underlying visual motor, fine motor, and perceptual motor deficits that can contribute to handwriting difficulties. In addition, the scope of occupational therapy also includes addressing difficulties in the following areas: bilateral integration (ie. cutting), perceptual motor difficulties (reading, writing, math computations), postural concerns and ergonomics, self-care activities during the school day, attention/processing skills (maintaining a calm and regulated state for learning), executive function and organizational skills, sensory processing abilities, participation in leisure and playground activities, social emotional skills, as well as prevocational skills and secondary transition.

What role do OT's and PT's play in the school setting?

  • Pre-referral services and supports as part of the general education process
  • 504 referral services are part of general education
  • Special education referral and request for assessment
  •  Intervention planning and implementation of IEP services
  •  Transition planning and services
  •  Consultative services
  •  Education, in-services, and provision of resources
  • Liaison

How do school-based OT's and PT's help students?

  • Provide formal assessment in order to determine student needs
  • Assist in IEP and/or 504 processes
  • Collaborate with educational teams
  • Provide services based on student needs in the areas of:
    • fine motor skills
    • visual perceptual skills
    • motor coordination
    • functional written communication
    • sensory processing skills
    • executive function abilities
    • access to the physical environment
    • gross motor skills
    • functional skills
    • motor planning abilities
  • Ongoing skilled observations of students to determine modifications and/or strategies
  • Train and assist staff to implement strategies and techniques for improved functional independence
  • Develop adaptations and modifications for students so they can access their educational environment

Strategies to support students in the classroom

  • Implement consistent schedules and routines
  • Provide positive reinforcement
  • Proper ergonomic positioning
  • Provide alternative seating options
  • Give frequent movement breaks
  • Promote good posture for work
  • Time for play
  • Set appropriate expectations for attention to task
  • Opportunities to develop fine motor skills related to writing
    • Writing on a vertical surface promotes better wrist position
    • Opportunities to copy pre-writing shapes and the alphabet are actually better than tracing
    • Use a variety of writing tools to increase interest and participation
    • Use wiki sticks, playdough or food to form shapes and letters
    • Small pencils or broken crayons promote a better grasp; little tools for little hands
  • Opportunities to develop gross motor skills
    • Encourage movement frequently
    • Encourage reciprocal motions; have the child crawl through a tunnel
    • Gross motor skills lay the foundation for fine motor skills

Occupational and physical therapists help support students in the school setting in a variety of areas. Although therapists often provide individualized services to students on IEPs or 504 plans, your site occupational therapist and physical therapist can be a part of the SST process and provide schoolwide training in specific areas of need. Each school site has a dedicated occupational therapist and physical therapist that provides services. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us when you have questions, we are always here to help!


Below are some additional links to great developmental resources.