Special Education: Occupational Therapy 101


In my work as a special education student advocate, I have participated in dozens of Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting. Nearly all the students were offered occupational therapy as part of their remedial services plan.

However, rarely did the school’s IEP team members explain to parents in a meaningful way the scope, purpose and benefits of occupational therapy.

Without any true understanding of the academic impact of occupational therapy, it is not surprising a parent may question why their child needs “jobs” related services. After all, it is years before a grade school student will need skills to help seek an occupation.

The fact of the matter is learning is a child’s primary occupation. According to the Bethesda Maryland based American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) a well structured, thoughtfully delivered occupational therapy plan can “help kids with various needs improve their cognitive, physical, sensory and motor skills and enhance their self-esteem and sense of accomplishment.”

In a school setting, occupational therapy (OT) services are for students who are eligible for special education services. The child’s needs are identified through an evaluation by the Occupational Therapist. He or she also helps determine annual goals, identifies supports, and recommends accommodations, and hours of service needed to meet expected annual progress. These recommendations are shared at the IEP meeting.

In some instances, “students whose disability affects their participation in school but who do not qualify under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), may be eligible to receive occupational therapy under other federal laws such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act,” says AOTA.

The occupational therapist uses their skills and training “to help children to prepare for and perform important learning and school-related activities. Their goal is to ensure children fulfill their role as students.

This may include exercises to improve: social skills; academic skills math, reading and writing; behavior management; physical (eye/hand coordination); participation in sports; self-help skills; and prevocational/vocational participation.

In particular occupational therapy practitioners “are particularly skilled in facilitating student access to curricular and extracurricular activities through supports, designing and planning, and other methods. Additionally, they play a critical role in training parents, other staff members, and caregivers regarding educating students with diverse learning needs.”

The AOTA says occupational therapists have specific training in:

•Observing how a student engages in an activity.

•Providing strategies to facilitate a student’s full participation in school


•Reducing barriers that limit student participation within the school environment.

•Using assistive technology to support student success.

•Supporting the needs of students with significant challenges.

•Helping to determine methods for alternate assessment.

•Helping identify long-term goals for appropriate post-school outcomes.

•Helping plan relevant instructional activities for ongoing implementation

in the classroom.

•Assisting students in preparing for successful transition into appropriate post–high school employment, independent living, and/or further education.

The occupational therapist’s role is collaborative, says AOTA. “They work closely with a number of people to improve their student’s performance in a variety of learning environments (e.g., playgrounds, classrooms, lunchrooms, bathrooms) and optimize their performance with adaptations and accommodations.

Parents are an important part of the team. Supporting their children’s learning in and outside the classroom is essential” to achieving the best results.

Teachers and “school support staff can also play a role in the delivery of OT services by planning and developing activities and environments that include all students.

School administrators can support the success of OT by promoting safety within the school environment (e.g., physical and behavioral assistance needs). Administrators who provide training for students, staff and parents, as well as recommend equipment for schools and ways to modify existing buildings and curriculum to allow access for all.”

Jayne Matthews Hopson writes about education matters because “on the educated are free.”