by Stacy M. Turke
on the On the Road with @stacyturke OTR blog
This past week, I found myself in the middle of a therapy session watching the joy of a kindergarten student on my caseload as we gathered snowflake-shaped beads that had been strategically scattered over the floor of the therapy space. Because he loves wolves, we were pretending to be wolf pups, playing on hands and knees in the “snow” and he was having a blast. I giggled because his joy brought me joy and he suddenly looked up at me and said, with wonder in his eyes, “I made you laugh!” He went on to complete a little more of our “work,” stringing the beads onto matching colored pipe cleaners, and then he looked back up at me again and said, “I’m gonna’ make you laugh AGAIN!” My supervisor was looking on at all of this because she was observing me that day. Quietly I said to her, “I get paid to PLAY!”
I’m often asked “Why OT? Why did you become a School OT?” and I sometimes find myself stumbling over my words because there are so many reasons. After 30+ years working with school-aged children, their parents, and their school staff, I can honestly say that this was one of the two wisest decisions I ever made (becoming a mom to my two daughters is the other). So what makes being a school OT such a great career? Here’s my 3 top reasons:
1. School OT is FUN
It is true that we have paperwork and meetings and other “adulting” kinds of activities that are not always fun. However, the real work, the reason we are in schools, is to support student success. And since the work of a child often boils down to play…School OTs get paid to play! The play is carefully orchestrated to address specific skills, certainly. it’s not a free-for-all and it takes all kinds of planning to make it look and feel like a playful session for the child. Relay races, games, puzzles, playdoh, Legos, peg boards, yoga balls, scooter boards, pipe cleaners and beads…these are the pieces of “equipment” that school OTs use every day to meet student goals. All of which are FUN!
2. School OT is NEVER BORING
Yes, I have a weekly schedule that brings needed structure and routine to my work, and that helps with me plan and prepare for whatever may be ahead. However, because we work in the dynamic environment of the school system with living, breathing children, school OTs never really know what each day will bring, and that can be exciting. A typical day will take me to at least two different schools, sometimes even more, and my students can range from age 3 to post-secondary. I may work on strength and endurance with one child, which might look like push-ups, crab walks, and therapy putty activities. Another child may need to work on visual processing skills, so we may play with Legos and complete word search puzzles. Another child may be learning to regulate strong emotions and becoming familiar with sensory processing tools, so we might study the Zones of Regulation to understand tools that might be useful for calming. An older student may be working on pre-vocational skills on a job site, needing to learn to tie off a trash bag with the use of only one hand. You just never know what the day may bring, and that keeps things fresh and exciting.
3. School OT is INSPIRING
Our roles as client-centered service providers and consultants can make a big impact in schools – sometimes just one child or family at a time and sometimes with a whole class all at once. Our training in task analysis helps us break down barriers that interfere with student success while considering the whole child and his or her needs and interests. A recent experience has driven this home for me in a powerful way. Several years ago, a boy with a physical disability entered my school as a kindergartener. At that time, research that was available to me suggested that, since his physical challenges would slow the learning process considerably, he needed to move directly to technology use so that he’d have ample time to learn the technology while learning the academics. As the OT on his team, it was my job to help identify what technology his little hands would be able to manage and begin the training process while helping him continue to develop his fine motor skills as best as possible.
But there was a problem with this research-supported approach. This little guy was too young to read that research! He wanted to draw the snowmen his friends were drawing. He wanted to write his letters and numbers and name because he had stories to tell! None of his friends were doing that stuff using technology, so it didn’t make any sense to him at all that he should be using a device instead of a crayon. So our team faced a dilemma: honor the (then) current research…or this little face smiling up at us who was reaching for the writing tools. We pulled together and honored his desire to learn to write and draw. We assigned the Resource Teacher to provide daily handwriting practice following the Handwriting Without Tears curriculum that was adjusted to meet his speed and progress. My role as the School OT was to develop and provide data collection materials to the team and to assess the weekly progress to determine where to go for the following week. The team met many times during that first school year to assess where he was in terms of progress and to try to determine WHEN to introduce technology, as we all assumed that would be the ultimate outcome. And then First Grade came…and this little guy was still looking like a future hand-writer! So we repeated the process, advancing the handwriting instruction to the first-grade level, continuing the daily practice and the monitoring and the meetings…and he continued to learn and progress and feel empowered as a learner through the next several years. Recently, in late elementary school, his ability to neatly write the multiple-page stories he has in his imagination began to suffer and both he and his teaching staff decided it was time to look at technology. I am pleased to report that he is CRUISING through learning to use technology meaningfully and successfully. Last week he produced writing at a rate of just over 50 WORDS PER MINUTE! We waited until it was the right time for HIM, and interestingly the research available now supports we made the right decision academically as well. Kids who use handwriting develop stronger language arts skills, even if their legibility through that process isn’t perfect. This child’s progress continues to be an inspiration to his educational team,and we look forward to watching his continued growth.
It all boils down to this…As a School OT I get to work with one or two children (typically) at a time, and we giggle and color and do puzzles, all carefully selected and designed activities that have specific purpose. We talk about things that are important to the child and we problem solve ways to make school easier and more fun. We get to honor the children before us and are inspired by their drive and determination. All while we are helping overcome challenges, often through play. School OT ROCKS!
Stacy M. Turke, OTR/L: “On the Road with @stacyturke OTR blog.” Stacy has been a school OT for 30 years with the same school district in Michigan in what she describes as “my dream job.” Her career has ranged from working in a “center-based” school to working in public and private schools throughout the county, including those in the rural, suburban, and urban areas. She has experience working with students with a wide range of educational needs, to include cognitive impairments, Autism Spectrum Disorder, physical challenges, sensory processing needs, and many other learning challenges. She expresses her enthusiasm when she says “This career has been fulfilling, always presenting new and interesting challenges, and is NEVER boring!” You can connect with Stacy on Pinterest at https://www.pinterest.com/stacyturke/ and on Twitter at @stacyturke.Disclaimer: The information shared on the Go-To-For-OT Blog or affiliated Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest sites, and shared on social or public media or as links on other sites is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the authors and administrator of these posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources. Photos that include a link to an originating site are the property of that site and their use should include the link provided.