Collaborating with Classroom Teachers: A win-win
by Marie Toole, MS, OTR/L
on the School Tools From Your Pediatric Occupational Therapist Blog
I often get asked how long I have worked for the school district I am currently employed with. When I tell them I have been there 21 years they are amazed. The next question is always “How can you work in one place for so long?” My answer always is “I work with the best teachers and we collaborate to provide the best services for our students.” How do we do that you might ask? Here are a few of the programs we have in place that help me to collaborate with the teachers I work with.
Collaborating to “SPOT” those children struggling in the curriculum
You will see SPOT time on my schedule. In our kindergarten classroom, the Speech Pathologist (SP) and the Occupational Therapist (OT) have time blocked in for classroom support time, 30 minutes per week in each kindergarten classroom. We each have separate blocks to go in and “SPOT” those children who may be struggling with curriculum or motor skills. The speech pathologist might work on language or articulation skills. As the OT, I am looking for those little friends that may have challenges with holding a pencil, using scissors, forming letters, coloring, or using blocks. I often go in when it’s center time and run a fine motor or hand skill center that the teacher has set up to coordinate with the curriculum work they are completing.
When I first started in this district 21 years ago, I had lots of referrals for handwriting, hand skills, and pencil grips. Since then I have presented a lot of teacher and professional development workshops on these particular topics and my classroom teachers are well versed in typical development and what is expected. For the first few months of the school year, I work with all of the kindergartners. As we get into the second half of the year, my groups have been streamlined to include those 5 or 6 students per class that continue to struggle. We may work on writing their name, or the letter of the week, or maybe we work on math or number formation. Those children get small group instruction in hopes that we can stall a referral for special education or an occupational therapy evaluation. The philosophy of the school district I work in is to give students supports early on and do what is right for students. I am lucky in that regard that I can service all students using the Response to Intervention model (RtI). Working with the classroom teachers this way has cut down on our referrals significantly.
Collaborating in the Classroom during Writer’s Workshop Time
Another area in which I work closely with the classroom teachers is PenPals. In third grade the OT staff and the classroom teacher co-teach cursive writing. We take it slow and teach 2 letters per week over the course of the school year. At the end of the school year, the OT staff coordinates a PenPal program amongst the three elementary schools in town. We explain the program to the students and get parent permission for their child to participate. We gather all the permission slips and then match PenPals together. The goal of the program is to get the students to write to each other at least three times over the summer. It is a great way to practice cursive writing and keep those skills in the forefront before fourth grade!
I also conduct another PenPal Project with one of my second grade classes. On Friday afternoons, this classroom teacher has set aside a writing block where the students write home to their parents about their week at school. The students brainstorm all the cool things that happened over the course of the week and then they write home to an adult who writes back. The students love getting a letter from their parent, a grandparent, an aunt, or older brother or sister. I use this block as one of my therapy times for students in her classroom.
A third PenPal program we have is Letters to Soldiers. In early November our elementary schools participate in a drive to send care packages to soldiers overseas. There are specific items that can be sent and the students love to bring in granola bars, small boxes/bags of candy, white tube socks, or lip balm to put in the packages. Along with the goodies, our students write letters as well. Sometimes we get letters or pictures back and classrooms have an ongoing relationship with that specific soldier. We do this in conjunction with a Veteran’s Day program which is truly humbling to be a part of.
Collaborating on Scheduling: Push In vs. Pull Out
Another area where I collaborate closely with my classroom teachers is on scheduling. I like to work with my students right in the classroom. I sometimes pull out to the OT office as well for specific therapy skills that need polishing, but for the most part I work in the classrooms. At the beginning of the school year, scheduling is always the priority. The teachers I work with understand the crazy schedule of a school therapist who goes between buildings across the district. I try to work around their schedules to get the best times that they will be doing Writer’s Workshop times in their classrooms. Once they get the schedule from the special education team, the teachers always want to schedule with us next. They love having an extra pair of hands in their classroom to help with the craft of writing. Whether it is writing personal narratives in second grade or state reports in fourth grade, the OT staff is there to assist our students with written expression. “Showing what you know” is one of the most difficult tasks we ask our students to do on a daily basis. Sometimes a little help with scaffolding ideas or a reminder to put spaces between words and use capital letters or punctuation can put the polish on a piece of writing and make our students proud of their work!
One thing to remember when scheduling time in the classroom: You are a guest in that teacher’s classroom. Work with the teacher to make sure you are on the same page and have the same goals for each lesson. Sometimes it helps to check earlier in the week to make sure all is set. Find out if the teacher likes you to pull a small group to a back table or if you can work with students right at their desks. Getting this information right up front will help everyone have a more successful school year. When you work together and respect each other’s roles, it not only helps your students but helps your scheduling. When classroom teachers likes and respects you they will a) go out of their way to make the schedule work, b) will drop what they are doing to switch gears if necessary when you show up in the classroom, and c) be more likely to tell you early enough in the week when plans need to change.
Collaborating with the teachers I work with has made my job so much easier over the course of my career. I plan to retire from this school district at the end of this school year. Although a move across country has made this necessary, it is still hard to say goodbye to a team of teachers in two different buildings that I have worked hard to “train” and educate as to what OT’s have to offer. I am hoping to land a school OT job in my new community and will bring these ideas with me. It will be starting anew for all of us. I can only hope that my new colleagues will be as willing to collaborate as my current teams are.
Marie L. Toole, MS, OTR/ L, is a pediatric occupational therapist with 28 years experience in NICU, Early Intervention, and private practice with the last 20 years spent working in public schools. She is NBCOT and SIPT certified as well as a member of AOTA and NHOTA. She lives in southern New Hampshire and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MarieTooleOTNH, on Pinterest marietooleNHOT, and on School Tools for Pediatric Occupational Therapists where she tweets, pins, and posts about OT, education, autism, and sensory integration, as well as other school related topics.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 are the property of the author or site owners and their use should include the link provided to the contributor’s source.