Our clinicians work with children and adolescents of all ages, often within the home environment. Occupational therapy for children can support young people with fine and gross motor skills, social development, sensory processing, self-care and more.
One of the keys to achieving better outcomes is educating parents and family members on ways to implement and practice strategies in the home. This ensures a child or adolescent can successfully transfer the skills they have learnt in therapy sessions to day-to-day life, and will not only help your family achieve their goals more quickly but will also empower you to perform a leading role in your loved one’s care!
Below, Marie-Eve Dostie, Ability Action Australia’s National Paediatric Clinical and Team Lead, lists six OT tips for parents you can use when practicing new skills in the home environment.
6 OT tips for parents you can use to support your child
1) Practice and repetition are key
Practice often for shorter periods of time as this is more effective than practicing less often for longer stretches of time. Practicing skills only during therapy sessions once a week or fortnight will not generate as good a result as if the skills/activities are practiced regularly at home and across natural environments.
“It’s a bit like going to the gym — many little sessions are better than going once for a three-hour block,” Marie-Eve says.
Also, a child’s new skill will generalise better if it’s been practiced at home as well as in therapy. Generalisation occurs when a child transfers skills they have learned in one environment to a new environment.
Daily life is the perfect setting to practice new skills. For example, if an adolescent is working on their social skills, let them order their food themselves when eating out or grabbing a beverage.
Always allow plenty of time so your child does not feel pressured to practice. For example, allow an extra 10 minutes in the morning so they can practice tying their laces independently, or practice on the weekend when less rushed.
2) Embed practice in the routine
For many children we work with here at Ability Action Australia, predictability is essential. When things are predictable, children feel safe and in control and they tend to better regulate their emotions. By embedding the practice of new skills in your child’s routine and making this activity expected, they will more likely be regulated when practicing these skills/activities, increasing the chance for better outcomes.
“When things are expected, they usually go smoother. If a child is well-regulated, they are in a better disposition to learn, be open to feedback and have the resilience to go through the ups and downs of learning a new skill,” she says.
Being consistent and practicing skills everyday (or every so often) at the same time for a set amount of time will help your child be in the right mindset and maximise their outcomes.
3) Add visual support
Add visual support when learning a new skill with your child. Visual supports and strategies are often used to help autistic children improve their skills in processing information, understanding and using language, and understanding and interacting with their physical and social environments.
“For many children, processing verbal information and transitioning through activities during the day is challenging. We can improve our success rate by adding visual support when learning a new skill. This can be in the form of pictograms (icons), photos, visual sequences/routines or social stories,” Marie-Eve explains.
Visual schedules can have many purposes. For example, you can use them to help your child know what’s happening next, to signal a change to the normal routine, or to help your child do tasks without you telling them what to do.
4) Link the new skill to an interest
Whenever possible, link the new skill/activity to your child’s interests/preferred topics to increase their engagement in the task and therefore achieve better outcomes. If your child really enjoys space, dinosaurs, fairies or mermaids, we can use this to create themed activities or as reinforcers for reward charts.
“For example, if your child likes spies/detectives, practising letter formation can be done via a secret password to trace on the fridge every time you need to open it. Or your child can transform into a superhero when completing an obstacle course and practising their gross motor skills. Alternatively, we can have a train visual chart and every time the child sits on the toilet, we add a wagon/track to complete the train,” Marie-Eve suggests.
With a bit of imagination and creativity, we can make most skills/activities very enjoyable for both you and your child! And when we have fun, we actually learn quicker!
5) Use a multisensory approach
No two people learn in exactly the same way — some need visual information to fully understand a concept, some learn better through hands-on activities, while others need you to tell them something out loud. Knowing how your child learns best will allow you and the clinician to employ the best possible approach.
That being said, the brain usually retains information and learns best when we involve multiple senses (the information is processed in the brain via multiple pathways). The more pathways we involve in the coding of the information, the better chance we have of retaining the information.
When teaching children new tasks such as handwriting, applying as many senses as possible can be a beneficial technique. Occupational therapy for children with disabilities use activities that engage all the senses:
- Tell the child how to form the letter (audition)
- Demonstrate and use visual cues on paper (vision)
- Ask the child to trace the letter in playdough or shaving cream (touch)
- Ask the child to ‘air write’ (write in the air) with different body parts (proprioception/kinesthetics)
- Use mnemonic tricks or analogies (memory/audition)
6) Consider the environment
When learning a new skill/activity, it’s best to consider the environment and make sure any noise or visual distractions are kept to a minimum. Consider your child’s preferred time of the day to ensure maximum engagement and focus — some children are more functional in the morning compared with after school or dinner.
If practicing in a group, smaller groups and groups of people that are familiar to the child are preferred to facilitate the task. When there are too many people or distractions around, it can be overwhelming for the child or make them anxious, preventing them from engaging in conversations and tasks.
Limiting distractions for parents as much as possible is also beneficial. If you’re engaged and focused, this will model the appropriate behaviour to your child and facilitate the activity. If possible, set a time to practice a skill/activity when you are fully available for your child— when other kids are busy playing outside, turn your phone off, and don’t worry about other tasks while practicing the skills. Your child will feel like the activity is important to you and make a real effort.
Talk to us
We hope these strategies and OT tips for parents help you to practice new skills in your home environment and support the therapy process. If you’d like further tips on practising your child’s therapy at home, please contact your therapist directly or call Ability Action Australia on 1800 238 958 to find out more about our range of NDIS therapeutic supports.