Using what’s on hand - Occupational Therapists get clever with distance learning

One brick. Two bricks. Line them up just right. Continue stacking. Be sure to breathe. Take your time. Practice. Make it fun. 

The Whitaker children spent an afternoon this way - building a structure in their backyard and having a blast doing it. What may not traditionally be considered school work is celebrated by the Whitaker’s Occupational Therapist, Cathy Parrino. 

Parrino, the OT of Julie Billiart Schools’ Lyndhurst campus, says that the majority of her students lack body awareness and need movement breaks. Because students are no longer in the physical classroom or OT room, she has encouraged more freedom and collaboration to explore movement in the child’s home setting. 

“I’m letting the students do more collaborating and plan their own adventure,” she said. “I ask them, ‘what should we do?’ ‘what do you like?’ Some draw super mario to work on fine motor skills. Others are building legos or structures. It’s about keeping them engaged, even though we’re not in the same room.” 

JB Akron Occupational Therapist, JJ Schweikert, is also getting creative to make sure that OT is a session that students look forward to each week. 

“It’s been so fun to connect with the kids, and their parents, through distance learning,” said Schweikert. “I get to learn more about their experiences and challenges, and can bring that back to the classroom next year. It’s been a big positive.”

Both Parrino and Schweikert, and all of the therapists and intervention specialists at Julie Billiart Schools, had to quickly move from an in-person to an online format in March of 2020. While virtual, or “tele”therapy can present challenges, JB knew that pausing therapy services was not an option. 

“We had to figure it out quickly,” said Schweikert. “The first week was setting up a schedule for our kids and parents. I sent a survey to figure out what days and times best suited our families. Now I see all of our kids at least once a week for one-on-one sessions.”

JB therapists have always taken an individualized approach to each student. Now, they must think even more critically about the unique environment and resources of each student. Without the dedicated OT rooms and gyms at each JB campus, therapists have gone above and beyond to creatively engage each student from the comfort of his or her home. 

“Now that I'm in their home and they’re in mine, we’re getting into the nitty gritty of self care and habits, said Parrino. She likened the personal nature of virtual therapy to outpatient services. “OT in school is limited to the school setting. It’s structured around their schoolwork and classes. “But virtual OT brings therapy into their home lives. Parents are able to get even more involved.”

This might mean making a fort with bricks, doing the rosary, crumpling a piece of paper with one hand on your head, or using a broken crayon to write, which isolates and strengthens hand muscles. The therapists are creating and measuring activities based on what kids have nearby. 

“We don’t expect everyone to run out and buy theraputty,” said Schweikert. “I don’t want to burden the families or have them buy things to feel like their kids need certain things to get the most out of OT. We’re trained to improvise. That’s why we’re here.” 

They’ve also taken this opportunity to continue the social and emotional growth of students. Parrino has encouraged kids to become pen pals in an effort to practice fine motor skills and encourage social bonds. 

Schweikert has organized virtual sessions alongside the JB Akron Speech Therapist, Victoria Kuzyk, and a group of students. Group work allows the students to practice communication skills and catch up on each others’ lives. Both therapists have created group and individual videos for students and their parents. 

“Obviously this wasn’t easy for a lot of families, said Schweikert. “From the beginning, our school has reached out to families - those struggling and not - to say that we understand. You’re not in this alone. We love our students and can still see and feel the progress, support, and love through zoom sessions.” 

Ely Whitaker, the mother of three JB Lyndhurst children, said that virtual OT has been an amazing resource for her family. “We played handwriting games, did a lot of artwork that utilized the children's developing fine motor skills, and worked on gross motor coordination with fun games and dances,” she said. “On days where the children were more reluctant to participate, she (Parrino) easily adapted the activities so they would become interested or worked with them on breathing and calming techniques.”  

“I have a large circle of friends with special needs children and the services that JB prepared are very rare in this community, and they started immediately after the first at-home school order was initiated,” said Whitaker. “At JB, we are a part of an incredibly special community of therapists and teachers, and I have to say that the children's services were not interrupted in the least.”

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