The Role of Occupational Therapy in Supporting Students with Learning Differences

Occupational therapy uses science-based techniques to empower people of all ages to accomplish meaningful activities (occupations) in their daily lives.

For students with learning differences, their “occupations” include participating in school and taking care of themselves. Occupational therapists (OTs) are allied health professionals who can support these students by adapting materials and tools to help them function to the best of their ability both in school and at home.

Some common learning differences that occupational therapy can help address are Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyspraxia, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

An occupational therapist can assist a child, teachers, and parents to deliver treatment, recommendations, and a therapeutic plan to address daily difficulties. Occupational therapy may focus on organizational skills, handwriting, balance/coordination, fine and gross motor skills, visual-perceptual skills, self-care, and confidence.

Through my extensive experience as a pediatric occupational therapist, I have seen time and time again the profound impact this type of therapy can have on a child’s life. As passionate problem solvers and skilled clinicians, we are able to adapt the tasks based on the specific needs of the individual. This provides significant benefits both now and well into the future.

Specific Contributions by the Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapy can support students in developing executive functioning skills by working on attention, flexible thinking, working memory, motor planning, and self-control.

Organization is attained when a child is able to arrange their body and their surroundings at the same time. Occupational therapists help students plan, prioritize and execute their day to day tasks.

One strategy that OTs use to help students improve their attention and focus is to break tasks down into simpler portions. In order to increase alertness, we may recommend different seating options to improve postural control and body alignment, as well as weighted lap pads, slant boards, or foot rests.

Additional strategies may include timing/pacing techniques, teaching visual cues/reminders, or reducing environmental distractions.

Occupational therapy can support students in developing fine motor skills that are essential to academic success. OTs work on activities that promote hand strengthening, eye-hand coordination, and grasp. In addition, we address shoulder stability and core strength through fun and engaging exercises to provide the necessary foundation for fine motor skills.

Sensory integration therapy is used to help individuals learn to take in information received from their senses, organize it, and respond appropriately. This therapy can benefit students with learning differences, as it can improve challenging behaviors associated with difficulties in processing information.

Students learn self-regulation and understand how their senses work together as a whole through tactile, proprioceptive (deep pressure), and vestibular (movement) activities structured by an OT.

ehs-occupational therapy exercise

The Role of an Occupational Therapist in Schools

Occupational therapists collaborate with teachers and other professionals to support students with learning differences. We work jointly to develop goals, monitor interventions, and review student progress. Clinical observations and recommendations are shared with professionals working with the same student in order to provide successful support.

The role of occupational therapy in supporting students with dyslexia addresses important components of skills such as oculomotor function, executive functioning, and motor coordination. Some approaches include visual strategies, multi-sensory techniques, and letter formation practice to help build muscle memory.

Occupational therapy can support students with ADHD in developing self-regulation skills by helping them choose the best strategy to adjust their energy level and motor level for an adaptive and successful response to a situation.

An OT will assist students in identifying their sensory state and if they need activities/exercises to feel more regulated. Calming tools, alerting activities, or specific sensory breaks may be recommended depending on individual needs.

Clinical Expertise Based on Research and Evidence

Evidence-based practice is utilized in occupational therapy to ensure that OT’s are using the most up-to-date and effective treatments by basing their decisions on research. For example, Handwriting Without Tears is an effective handwriting curriculum using both sensory-motor activities and letter formation practice.

Another evidence-based approach known as “Zones of Regulation” is a program designed to help students learn self-regulation. These are just some of the many effective strategies implemented at Eagle Hill School.

Topics: Learning Differences, Accommodations, Occupational Therapy