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Recognizing The Need for OT in Young Children

As a parent, you are your child's first teacher. You guide them through their learning journey, helping them discover and reach crucial developmental milestones. Sometimes, though, it can be tricky to recognize the need for early intervention in their little ones. To help make it a little easier, I will outline a few key signs that might indicate your child could benefit from occupational therapy (OT).

At the heart of pediatric Occupational Therapy lies the commitment to enhancing a child's functional abilities, promoting independence, and fostering their overall well-being. As someone who has worked directly with parents and children in need of OT for almost thirty years, I can attest to the tremendous role that early intervention plays in providing kids with a strong foundation for development. More importantly, OT isn’t just a one-size-fits-all, because it offers tailored interventions that can help address a wide range of developmental challenges that young children might face.

Recognizing Signs of a Need For Occupational Therapy

Being attuned to subtle signs that may indicate a need for pediatric OT can significantly impact your child's long-term development. Some signs to watch for include:

  • Challenges with Fine and Gross Motor Skills: Learning a new skill can be difficult; however, if you notice your child having a tough time holding a spoon, building with blocks, or moving around by themselves beyond what’s expected of their age group, these motor challenges might be an indication of a more prominent underlying matter that can be addressed through pediatric occupational therapy.

  • Sensory Sensitivities: If you notice your child reacting incredibly strongly to things like bright lights, loud sounds, or even different textures and tastes, it could be a sign that they need a little help with sensory processing.

  • Struggling with Activities of Daily Living (ADLs): It can be hard to watch your child struggle to perform basic functions like zipping or buttoning clothes and feeding themselves independently. However, if they find it challenging to perform these actions without help, it might be a good idea to look into how occupational therapy can help them regain their confidence and independence.

  • Social Interaction Hurdles: Another sign you may have noticed is that your child finds it difficult to make friends or stay engaged with peers. In particular, they may find it challenging to recognize social cues or shy away from eye contact. While some nerves are normal, if it interferes with your child’s ability to make friends, it might be worth getting some guidance from an occupational therapist.

  • Speech and Communication Delays: It’s important to remember that every child is different; however, if your child is experiencing significant speech delays (compared to their peers or age group), there is a good chance that OT could provide comprehensive help to improve their communication and enhance their independence.

  • Dealing with Big Feelings: Remember, big feelings can be very overwhelming to little bodies. If you notice tantrums or outbursts around task switching or transitioning to different activities, it could be a sign that your child could use some extra tools from pediatric OT to help them regulate their emotions.

Empowering Development

Early intervention through pediatric OT utilizes a wide array of evidence-based techniques tailored to each child's individual needs. These techniques are designed to promote skill acquisition, build confidence, and encourage a sense of accomplishment. Some key techniques that I’ve used in my practice include:

  • Play-Based Therapy: This method taps into the natural inclination of children to explore, imagine, and create. Through carefully designed play activities, as an OT, I guide children in refining their fine motor skills – such as using their fingers for precise tasks – and their gross motor skills – like coordinating movements for physical activities. In addition to being fun, it also lets cognitive abilities receive a boost as children engage in problem-solving games and puzzles. I’ve found that play-based therapy helps social interactions flourish, by encouraging group play that fosters communication, cooperation, and the understanding of social cues.

  • Sensory Integration Therapy: is a remarkable tool that I employ to help children who grapple with sensory sensitivities. This involves a gradual and strategic introduction to different sensory stimuli, such as textures, sounds, and lights. By creating a controlled and supportive environment, I help children become more accustomed to these sensations. Over time, this leads to enhanced sensory regulation, allowing them to engage more comfortably with their surroundings and reduce sensory-related anxieties.

  • Motor Skills Training: forms an integral part of my sessions. In this approach, I engage children in targeted activities to enhance both their fine motor skills – intricate tasks like holding a pencil or buttoning clothes – and their gross motor skills – involving larger movements like jumping or running. By guiding them through age-appropriate challenges, I facilitate the development of these essential physical abilities, promoting coordination, strength, and confidence.

Empowering children with Self-Care Skills Development involves hands-on teaching of daily tasks like dressing, feeding, and grooming. I provide step-by-step guidance tailored to their developmental stage, allowing them to gradually master these practical skills. This not only fosters independence and self-confidence but also equips them with valuable life skills that contribute to their overall well-being and competence.

  • Collaboration is key, and I often work hand-in-hand with speech therapists for Communication Enhancement. Together, we employ interactive games, exercises, and strategies to foster effective communication and language development.

Last but not least, Behavioral Strategies are a vital component of my approach, particularly for children facing behavioral challenges. Through mindfulness exercises, emotional regulation techniques, and social skill-building activities, my work empowers children to understand and manage their emotions and behaviors. This equips them with practical tools to navigate social interactions, cope with stressors, and develop healthier behavioral patterns.

It’s important to keep in mind that the brain undergoes remarkable growth and adaptability during the early years, and the right support during this critical period can lead to significant improvements in a child's skills and abilities. Pediatric OT techniques are not just about addressing immediate concerns; they lay the groundwork for future successes by fostering essential life skills, independence, and confidence. By identifying and addressing developmental challenges early on, parents can provide their children with a solid foundation for academic achievement, social interactions, and overall well-being.


Kim Cunningham, MS OTR has served as a Licensed Pediatric Occupational Therapist for over 20 years, with a focus on early childhood development. As an educator, she's concerned in a holistic and comprehensive approach to the care of her young patients, even when they are learning from home. She is the founder and creator of the Hands on Fun OT kit, making occupational therapy fun and easy for parents and children.

Hands on Fun OT provides resources, tools, and activities geared toward the healthy development of kids. Based on functional and occupation-centered activities, the ideas shared on this site promote the underlying skills needed for action and performance in kids.

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