Occupational Therapy Tips for Classroom Teachers
Teachers are used to being much more than just “teachers.” Teachers often act as counselors, nurses, surrogate parents, and much more. One lesser known role that teachers also take is that of occupational therapist. Not every student who would benefit from occupational therapy actually receives it, and the need for OT support post-Covid is higher than ever.
Here is a list of techniques commonly used by occupational therapists, but that can be integrated into your classroom as well:
Don’t Ignore the Core:
A child who does not have good control of their core will encounter a lot of difficulty in the classroom. Slouching and poor posture do not give children the stability they need to write. No amount of modified materials will make up for a weak core. If you notice a child leaning, slouching, fidgeting, slumping, or getting tired easily, consider their core. Encourage activities that improve core strength at school and at home.
Hand Strengthening Exercises:
Perform exercises that strengthen the muscles of the hands and fingers, such as squeezing stress balls, using therapy putty, playing with Play-Doh, or using hand exercise devices. Remember that developing muscles that are used for handwriting includes muscles of the upper body, shoulders, and wrists. Drawing, crafting, jumping, and climbing can all positively affect handwriting skills!
Pencil Grasp Activities:
Engage in activities that promote proper pencil grip, such as using specialized pencil grips, playing with small manipulatives (e.g., beads, blocks), and using tools like tongs or tweezers to pick up objects.
Scissor Skills Practice:
Practice cutting activities using child-safe scissors. Start with simple straight lines and progress to more complex wavy lines and closed shapes. Encourage proper scissor grip and control while your students practice these techniques. One simple technique is to use a marker to draw a happy face on the child’s thumbnail to remind them to keep the thumbnail facing the ceiling when cutting.
Tracing and Dot-to-Dot Activities:
Engage in tracing and dot-to-dot exercises to develop hand-eye coordination, visual tracking, and control of the pencil or marker. Use a highlighter or yellow marker to create tracing opportunities for your students.
Fine Motor Manipulation Tasks:
Encourage activities that require precise finger movements, such as threading beads, buttoning clothes, using clothespins, or sorting small objects. Use art and sorting activities to practice fine motor manipulation.
Utilize handwriting worksheets that focus on letter formation, sizing, spacing, and overall legibility. Gradually increase the complexity and difficulty level as skills improve. Look for worksheets that give opportunities for tracing as well as independent letter formation (such as these), or use copywork worksheets to provide plenty of handwriting practice.
Writing with Different Mediums:
Practice writing with various mediums, such as chalk, markers, crayons, or different types of pencils (e.g., mechanical pencils, triangular pencils). Each medium offers a different sensory experience. Working with different materials and colors can also be highly motivating for kids.
Handwriting Warm-up Exercises:
Begin each handwriting session with warm-up exercises, such as finger stretches, finger taps, or finger resistance activities. These help prepare the hand muscles for writing tasks. A quick YouTube search will yield dozens of handwriting warm-up exercises.
Eye-Hand Coordination Activities:
Engage in activities that require the coordination of visual input and hand movements, such as playing catch, kicking a ball, completing lace cards, playing Simon Says, putting together puzzles, threading a needle, playing jump rope, or building with blocks.
Incorporate multi-sensory techniques, such as writing in sand or shaving cream, using tactile surfaces for tracing, or practicing letters on textured surfaces like sandpaper or felt.
Utilize modified paper, such as paper with raised lines or highlighted writing lines, to assist with letter sizing, alignment, and spacing. We recommend this highlighted handwriting paper (simply print and use), but you can also create your own using primary writing paper by highlighting the bottom half of the lines with a highlighter or yellow marker.
Bilateral Coordination Activities:
Engage in activities that involve both sides of the body working together, such as stringing beads, jumping rope, tying shoes, clapping hands, climbing stairs, playing with interlocking blocks, painting with a squeeze bottle, or rolling with a rolling pin.
Visual Tracking Exercises:
Practice activities that improve visual tracking skills, such as tracking a moving object with the eyes, completing puzzles and mazes, playing “I Spy”, or tracing lines or shapes on paper.
It’s important to note that these techniques should be carried out under the guidance of a qualified occupational therapist who can assess the child’s fine motor skills and design a customized intervention plan. But even if you don’t have an OT at your disposal, you can still use the above techniques to encourage activities to help your students improve their gross and fine motor skills.