After the Parent-Teacher Conference
Tips from a School OT
by Stacy Turke, OTR/L
You’ve been to your child’s parent teacher conference. No doubt you learned about your child’s reading scores, you saw samples of math curriculum activities, maybe even had a chance to sit on a chair that looks nothing like the chairs of your own elementary-school experience. You may have come away with ideas to support a little extra after school reading, and math practice that will be so fun it will be part of the weekend activities in your home. And it is also possible that your child’s teacher talked about non-academic skills that have a strong impact on school success. Things like the ability to attend and focus, maintaining work endurance, using fine motor skills functionally for writing and coloring, among others. If your teacher mentioned concerns in any of those areas, you might be wondering how to support your child at home. There are tutors to support math or reading skills, but how does a parent support fine motor development, or “sitting and attending,” at home?
School Occupational Therapists have all kinds of ideas that just might provide help for you and your child!
Sloppy Handwriting? You might try these:
• Ask your child’s teacher for handwriting practice sheets. If your child’s school or teacher uses a specific handwriting program, you’ll want to get copies of that one specifically. If they don’t use a specific program, try buying a handwriting practice book from the local teacher store or even Target. Pro tip: Also buy a 3 ring binder, page protectors, and dry erase markers when you pick up the handwriting practice book. Tear the book apart and put the pages into the page protectors, then store the pages in the binder. Now your child can practice each page over and over!
• Strengthen the hands by playing with playdough; you might even want to try making it. Here’s an easy recipe for homemade playdough you can make at home that will feel wonderful on the hands and last at least a month if you keep it in an air tight container.
• Pull out the legos and build both from a model and free-style it too! Pressing the bricks together and pulling them apart will strengthen the little muscles in the hands and fingers, making grasping the writing tool easier over time. Legos offers their own model instructions, and many blogs include Lego pattern cards you can print for your child to imitate.
• Paint on an easel: this will strengthen the shoulder muscles, which are needed to stabilize the arm when your child is writing and coloring.
• Grab a coloring book and some crayons and go to town! Staying in the lines and filling in the spaces completely with color are great skills to practice and will strengthen handwriting over time.
• Print off some dot-to-dots sheets: Kids forget they are “writing” when they are doing dot-to-dots, and practicing the planning needed to move from one number to the next helps sharpen eye-hand coordination. And then there’s that magic at the end when the shape appears.
• Make a simple word search or cross word puzzle with this week’s spelling list online!
• Pull out the scissors and coupon section of the Sunday newspaper (see last month’s post)
Difficulty sitting upright for the length of a work task? Think about some of these ideas:
• Make sure your child is getting enough sleep. It is hard to sit up when working if the body is tired. A tired child will have tired muscles. Check out these sleep recommendations to see if your child is getting enough sleep based on his or her age.
• Is s/he drinking enough water and eating well? We just can’t underestimate the importance of staying hydrated and nourished when thinking about work endurance. While the work at school isn’t as physically strenuous as a workout at the gym, the mental work sure is! Keeping the body and brain in top condition will support work endurance at school.
• Try a yoga ball for a chair during homework and play time. Sitting on a yoga ball helps keep the mind alert, which helps keep the body alert.
• Go to the park and play! Just like going for a run might help you wake up and focus, playing on swings, climbing on slides, and running to catch a frisbee will do the same for your child.
• Try Cosmic Kids Yoga or a similar yoga program, because yoga can support strength and endurance. And flexibility and mindfulness and good breathing and so many other good things.
• Try to aim for 30 minutes of strenuous exercise or play at least 5 days per week. Outdoors preferably!
• Play for 5 minutes or longer propped up on elbows and forearms to increase shoulder strength and stability, and over time endurance will grow too.
Paying attention at school and/or at home is tough? These ideas may help:
• Use visuals to support your directions/request and to help kids with sequencing. Ever notice that you say something to your child only to have to repeat it again and again? Spoken words are gone once you finish saying them. But a visual representation of your request will stay in front of the child until you or they move it. Want the kids to practice their spelling words? Show them a picture of what that looks like! This company makes free printable visuals for typical sequences your child likely engages in, such as Hand Washing and Morning Routines. Check it out!
• Break tasks into smaller parts. Asking my child to “clean her room” was sometimes overwhelming because many different jobs are accomplished when “cleaning.” I got better attention to detail when I gave smaller instructions. Put the books on the shelf. Put the laundry into the hamper. Put your shoes in the closet. The room got cleaner because the tasks felt manageable.
• Give your child a sticker chart to keep track of what they have done and what still needs to be done. Sometimes using a sticker to keep track of the little jobs that make up the big job can be really motivating and may help your child learn to sequence the tasks in order.
• Clearly define work areas, and reduce distractions in the work areas. It will probably be hard to pay attention if the only place to work is in the same room as the TV or the toys. So if possible, find a quiet, well-lit spot for work that is away from the distractions. And if there isn’t a spot like that in your home, then try hard hold firm to homework before play.
• Use timers to define the amount of time on task. This acts like a visual, reminding your child that it is work time. When the timer goes off, even if work isn’t finished, offer a break.
• Give breaks frequently, and encourage big movements like “brain breaks” You know how you have to get up and walk every so often when you have been sitting at your desk too long, just to wake up your mind? Your kids need this too. It’s likely that your child is engaging in brain breaks at school; ask your child’s teacher how to access them at home.
• Figure out what tools help YOUR child pay attention and use them. Some people need quiet music, some need silence. Some folks need to chew on gum, others need to drink lots of water. If one or more of these tools will help your child focus and pay attention to the jobs they have at home, whether school work or housework, then use them! Remember that a “tool” is something that helps you get your work done, so just like a pencil helps you write down your spelling words, gum may help you stay alert and focused. If you notice the child playing with the item instead of working and focusing, then that is not the “tool” for them. Find another one.
• Remember that kids are children, not mini-adults, and keep your expectations for focus and attention appropriate to their age.
While there are many different reasons why a child may have problems in these areas, some which may require specialized evaluation and support, many kids will benefit from these general suggestions. Think about which strategies seem feasible for you and your family, even run them by your child and see what sounds fun to them. Your child worked hard at school all day, practice at night should be Fun with a capital “F.”
Stacy M. Turke, OTR/L: “On the Road with @stacyturke OTR blog.” Stacy has been a school OT for 31 years with the same intermediate 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 @StacyTurkeOT.
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