Tag Archives: occupational therapy

Is Automaticity The Key To Handwriting Success?

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I know that this is a bold statement.  Handwriting is a complex skill, with visual-motor coordination, perceptual, cognitive and postural components.  But when I evaluate a child’s writing, and I watch them having to think about where to start and sequence movements to form a letter and place it on a line, and then decide how far apart the letters and words should be, it makes me think that the lack of automaticity is often a child’s biggest hurdle.  Even if their motor control isn’t terrific, they can still have legible and functional writing if they make fewer errors and write fast enough to complete their work in a reasonable amount of time.  Slow and labored writing isn’t functional, even if it is beautiful.

Think about how important it is for any visual-motor skill to become automatic in order to be efficient.   You cannot hit that ball if you have to think about it.  You just can’t.  It has to be a smooth and automatic response that comes from practice and refined feedback loops developed by experience.  While practicing, professional athletes drill down on minute aspects of the swing, but during the game, they choke if they “overthink”.  Ask anyone who has done a ton of free-throws in basketball (you get an unimpeded chance to drop that orange ball into the hoop) for practice but cannot make it when the game is on the line.

In this current culture, teachers have so many skills to impart.  Handwriting is still a skill children need.  Paper workbooks and worksheets are still used extensively until 3rd or 4th grade.  You cannot wait it out until kids get old enough to keyboard.  And a struggling writer in second grade is already feeling bad about their abilities. Sometimes so bad that they don’t want to do the language arts work that develops spelling, vocabulary and creative expression.   So waiting until they can type isn’t the answer.  You want excitement and enthusiasm for reading and writing early on.  Nothing develops excitement like success.  Nothing kills enthusiasm like boredom and failure.

If automaticity is the key to handwriting success, how do you develop it in children?  I think the folks at Handwriting Without Tears have figured it out.  I no longer use any other handwriting materials.  Their workbooks and pre-K multi-sensory learning tools are just too good.

  1. If you look at the pre-K and early primary workbooks carefully, you will see that the left-to-right, top-to-bottom orientation is embedded in everything.  Even the cute animals for little kids to color are all facing left-to-right!
  2. The two lines (baseline and midline) are simple to use.  No wondering where to place letters.   The pre-K letters are at the bottom of the page, creating an emerging automatic sense of baseline.
  3. The developmental progression (versus the alphabetical progression) builds slowly from vertical and horizontal lines to curves and diagonal lines.  Letters are grouped by the way they are formed, making automatic movements emerge early and consistently.
  4. Workbook pages aren’t overwhelming with activities, but the skills are repeated to intentionally develop writing automaticity.

For example, instead of writing 12 letter”B”s and 12 letter “b”s,  uppercase letters, with their larger and simpler hand movements are taught together and earlier.  Letters “b” and “d” aren’t taught together since they can easily be reversed.  Letters “b” and “h” are taught together since the formation is very similar.  Fewer reversals, more success without having to go back and re-teach letter formation.

Take a look at the best “pre-K into K” book I have ever seen, HWT’s KickStart Kindergarten.  It is the perfect summer bridge activity for your preschooler or your older special needs child.

Happy summer writing!

 

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For Kids With Hypermobility, “Listen To Your Body” Doesn’t Teach Them To Pace Themselves. Here’s What Really Helps.

 

chen-hu-664399-unsplashI ran across a comment piece online that recommended parents teach their hypermobile  children to “listen to your body” to pace activities in an effort to avoid fatigue, pain or injury.  My reaction was fairly strong and immediate.  The sensory-based effects of hypermobility (HM) reduce interoception (internal body awareness)  and proprioception/kinesthesia (position and movement sense, respectively).  These are the  main methods of “listening” we use to know how we are feeling and moving.  For children with HM, telling them to listen to their body’s messages is like telling them to put on their heavy boots and then go see how cold the snow is outside! 

Relying primarily on felt senses when you have difficulty receiving adequate sensory feedback doesn’t make…..sense.  What often happens is that kids find themselves quickly out of energy, suddenly sore or tripping/falling due to fatigue, and they had very little indication of this approaching until they “hit a wall”.  They might not even see it as a problem.  Some kids are draped over the computer or stumbling around but tell you that they feel just fine.  And they aren’t lying. This is the nature of the beast.

I am all for therapy that helps kids develop greater sensory processing (as an OTR, I would have to be!), but expecting HM kids to intuitively develop finely tuned body awareness? That is simply unfair. Kids blame themselves all too easily when they struggle.  What begins as a well-meaning suggestion from a person with typical sensory processing can turn into just another frustrating experience for a child with HM.

What could really help kids learn to pace themselves to prevent extreme fatigue, an increase in pain and even injury due to overdoing things?

  1. Age-appropriate education regarding the effects of HM.  Very young children need to follow an adult’s instructions (“time to rest, darling!”), but giving older kids and teens a medical explanation of how HM contributes to fatigue, pain, injuries, etc. teaches them to think.   Understanding the common causes of their issues makes things less scary and empowers them.  If you aren’t sure how to explain why your child could have difficulty perceiving how hard they are working or whether they are sitting in an ergonomic position, read Hypermobility and Proprioception: Why Loose Joints Create Sensory Processing Problems for Children for some useful information.  You could ask your child’s OT or PT for help.  They should be able to give you specific examples of how your child responds to challenges and even a simple script to use in a discussion.  Explaining the “why” will help children understand how to anticipate and prepare for the effects of HM.
  2. Consider finding a pediatric occupational therapist to teach your child postural, movement and interoceptive awareness, adapt your child’s learning and living environments for maximal ease and endurance, and teach your child joint protection techniques.  Occupational therapists are often thought of as the people that hand out finger splints and pencil grips.  We are so much more useful to your child than that narrow view!  For example, I have adapted desks for optimal postural endurance and decreased muscle tension.  This has immediate effects on a child’s use of compensations like leaning their chin on their hand to look at a screen.  OT isn’t just for babies or handwriting!
  3. Pacing starts with identifying priorities.  If you don’t have boundless energy, attention, strength and endurance, then you have to choose where to spend your physical “currency”.  Help your child identify what is most important to them in their day, their week, and so on.  Think about what gives them satisfaction and what they both love to do and need to do.  This type of analysis is not easy for most kids.  Even college students struggle to prioritize and plan their days and weeks.  Take it slow, but make it clear that their goals are your goals.  For many children with HM, being able to set goals and identify priorities means that they will need to bank some of their energy in a day or a week so that they are in better shape for important events.  They may divide up tasks into short components, adapt activities for ease, or toss out low-level goals in favor of really meaningful experiences.  Can this be difficult or even disappointing?  Almost certainly!  The alternative is to be stuck at an event in pain, become exhausted before a job is completed, or end up doing something that places them at higher risk for injury.
  4. Help your child identify and practice using their best strategies for generating energy, building stamina and achieving pain-free movement.  Some kids with HM need to get more rest than their peers.  Others need to be mindful of diet, use relaxation techniques, wear orthotics regularly, adapt their home or school environment, or engage in a home exercise program.  Learning stress-reduction techniques can be very empowering and helps kids think through situations calmly.    Creating a plan together and discussing the wins and failures models behaviors like optimism and resourcefulness.  Children depend on adults to show them that self-pacing is a process, not an endpoint.

Looking for more information to help your child with hypermobility?  Take look at The Hypermobile Hand: More Than A Strength ProblemShould Your Hypermobile Child Play Sports? and How Hypermobility Affects Self-Image, Behavior and Activity Levels in Children.  My e-books on pediatric hypermobility are coming out soon!  Check back here at BabyBytes for updates.

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Career Planning for Teens with JRA, EDS, and Other Chronic Health Issues

 

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It is graduation time here in the U.S.  Kids (and parents) are thinking about the future.  But when your teen has chronic health conditions, the future can be uncertain and the decisions more complicated.  I know that the saying “Do what you love and you won’t have to work another day of your life” is very popular, but the truth is that career planning is much more than finding your passions.

Here are a few things to think about:

  1. Every teen needs to learn about their interests and their skills.  Regardless of medical concerns or limitations, picking a career path that doesn’t match any strong interests is a plan almost certain to fail.  There is a medical reason to pick a career that they don’t hate;  if the greatest part of the day or week will require them to do tasks they dislike or find boring, they are at risk for stress-related flares in their condition. Similar concerns exist when a career choice doesn’t match their skills.  Loving what you do but not having the right skills or talents is very frustrating.  It could be harder to get and keep a job without good skills.  Help your teen identify what interests them about life and school, and where they truly shine.  If your teen hasn’t had a chance to observe people working in the profession(s) they find interesting, make sure that they do so before they invest time and money in training.
  2. Look at potential careers with an eye to benefits, job demands and scheduling flexibility.  Most adults with chronic health conditions want to be employed, and every one of them will need health insurance.  In the U.S., that means finding a job that provides insurance or purchasing individual coverage after aging out of family policy coverage options at age 26.  Generous sick days and personal days are perks every employee desires, but for people with a chronic illness, those benefits allow for medical treatments and rest during periods of symptom flares.  Think carefully about the working environments common to a particular career path.  Some careers will have a high-stress pathway (i.e. trial attorney) but also less demanding types of work within the profession.  Other careers require a high degree of physical stamina and skill.  These may not be the jobs you would think of right away as physically demanding.  For example, preschool teachers and hairdressers are on their feet most of the day, every day!
  3. Career planning and completing required training while living with a chronic and possibly progressive condition may require outside support.  Teens that have been able to perform in high school without any compensations such as 504 plans may need more help in college.  Higher education often expects more independence and more mobility (think large campuses and internships) from students.  Most universities have an office for disabled students. Their staff will work with students with disabilities to create a plan, but it is the student’s responsibility to inform the office of specific needs and to develop strategies with the staff and faculty.  If your teen doesn’t want to be “identified” as disabled, this is the time to talk about being proactive and positive.  Finding assistance and receiving effective support could make all the difference.
  4. Explore local and online support groups.   Adults with your teen’s medical issues may have useful strategies or tales of caution that will help you develop a plan or expose problems that you haven’t anticipated.  Remember that personal stories are just that: personal.  Experiences are quite variable and it is difficult or impossible to  predict another person’s path.

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The Cube Chair: Your Special Needs Toddler’s New Favorite Seat!

 

 

Finding a good chair for your special needs toddler isn’t easy.  Those cute table-and-chair sets from IKEA and Pottery Barn are made for older kids.  Sometimes much older, like the size of kids in kindergarten.  Even a larger child with motor or sensory issues will often fall right off those standard chairs!

Should you use a low bench?  I am a big fan of the Baby Bjorn footstool for bench sitting in therapy, but without a back, many toddlers don’t last very long without an adult to sit with them.  Independent sitting and playing is important to develop motor and cognitive skills.   The cute little toddler armchairs that you can get with their name embroidered on the backrest look great, but kids with sensory or motor issues end up in all sorts of awkward positions in them.  Those chairs aren’t a good choice for any hypermobile child or children with spasticity.

Enter the cube chair.  It has so many great features, I thought I would list them for you:

  • Made of plastic, it is relatively lightweight and easy to clean.  While not non-slip, there is a slight texture on the surface that helps objects grip a little.  Add some dycem or another non-slip surface, and you are all set.
  • Cube chairs can be a safe choice for “clumsy” kids. Kids fall. It happens to all of them.  The design makes it very stable, so it is harder to tip over. The rounded edges are safer than the sharp wooden corners on standard activity tables.
  • It isn’t very expensive.  Easily found on special needs sites, it is affordable and durable.
  • A cube chair is also a TABLE! That’s right; turn it over, and it is a square table that doesn’t tip over easily when your toddler leans on it.
  • Get two:  now you have a chair and table set!  Or use them as a larger table or a surface for your child to cruise around to practice walking.  That texture will help them maintain their grip.  The chairs can stack for storage, but you really will be using them all the time.
  • It has two seat heights.  When your child is younger, use the lower seat with a higher back and sides for support and safety.   When your child gets taller, use the other side for a slightly higher seat with less back support.
  • The cube chair is quite stable for kids that need to hold onto armrests to get in and out of a chair.  The truly therapeutic chairs, such as the Rifton line, are the ultimate in stability, but they are very expensive, very heavy, and made of solid wood.

Who doesn’t do well with these chairs?  Children who use cube chairs have to be able to sit without assistance and actively use their hip and thigh muscles to stabilize their feet on the floor.  Kids with such significant trunk instability that they need a pelvic “seatbelt” and/or lateral supports won’t do well with this chair.  A cube chair isn’t going to give them enough postural support. If you aren’t sure if your child has these skills, ask your occupational or physical therapist.  They could save you money and time by giving you more specific seating recommendations for your child.

Your child may be too small or too large for a cube chair.  Kids who were born prematurely often remain smaller and shorter for the first years, and a child needs to be at least 28-30 inches tall (71-76 cm) to sit well in a cube chair without padding.

You may add a firm foam wedge to activate trunk muscles if they can use one and still maintain their posture in this chair, or use the Stokke-style chair A Simple Strategy To Improve Your Child’s Posture In A Stokke Tripp Trapp or Special Tomato Chair or the Rifton chair until your child has developed enough control to take advantage of a cube chair.

Looking for more information on positioning and play?  Check out Hypermobility and Proprioception: Why Loose Joints Create Sensory Processing Problems for Children and How To Pick The Best Potty Seat For Toilet Training A Child With Low Tone.  I am in the process of writing a series of practical guides for parents of children with hypermobility, so keep checking back on my site for the launch this summer!!

When Should You Begin To Teach Handwriting? (You May be Surprised!)

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The ability to bring two hands to midline and use fingertips to hold a block is a pre-writing skill!

Many formal handwriting programs begin at 4 years of age.  Handwriting Without Tears, Fundations, and others begin with children tracing letters and quickly progress to writing.  But the foundational skills for handwriting actually begin early.  Before your child’s first birthday.  Yes, that early.  And, believe it or not, that is when you could be teaching important skills that will eventually morph into handwriting.

No, I am not suggesting that we start teaching infants to write!  I have met a handful of very gifted children, some of whom could read before 4, but not one was writing letters before their first birthday.  The foundational skills for handwriting are grasp, reach, bilateral control, posture, ocular (eye) control and visual perception.  And every single one of these skills is developing before a child turns 1.

How do you develop these skills?  Play.  Play with small toys, play with big ones.  Play that requires a child to move.  Crawling through a tunnel and climbing over cushions to develop arm and hand control.  Play on their stomach and play standing at a table for posture and core stability.  Play that requires more than tapping a screen or pressing a button.  I love my tablet as much as the next person, but I was fortunate to grow up before it was invented.  I had something called “toys”.

If you sent me to teach occupational therapists in a developing country, I would bring a small bag of the best toys I know:  crayons, paper, scissors, LEGOs, balls of all sizes, and I would use some things that every home is likely to have:  small cups for scooping and emptying, scarves for peek-a-boo, and little pieces of food for self-feeding.  This is all you need.  Really.  Giving a child the chance to feed themselves, play in water and sand, build and scribble can do a lot to build foundational skills.

One thing that I forgot to mention as a foundational skill is……interest. Some kids are very interested in coloring.  Many are not.  Same with reading.  How do you get your child interested in writing?  You allow them access to tools, make the tools desirable, and show them that you enjoy coloring or writing.  When your infant reaches for your pen and you slide it away from them, they are showing you interest.  They can’t use a pen, but they can mess around with food puree on their high chair tray, drawing lines in the goo.  Prewriting at work.  When your toddler wants to eat the marker, remind them that these are for scribbling, and help them to make a masterpiece.  Every day.  Find fun materials.  I am a big fan of crayons instead of markers, but there are some sparkly crayons and some great markers and papers that don’t destroy your home while your child is learning to draw and write Color Wonder Paper Will Boost Creativity and Save Your Walls.

Not an artist?  No problem!  Fake it.  Just like you gleefully eat veggies even though you’d rather have cake, scribble and make something silly on paper.  Show how much fun it is.  You might find out that you are more creative than you thought, or that once you kill that critic in your head, you actually like to draw.

Child development experts bemoan the limited language skills of kids from families without books.  Philanthropists like Dolly Parton donate tons of books to poor families in the hopes that children will be read to and develop a love of reading.  Guess what?  Children need to have early experiences with writing and drawing as well.  The family that has no crayons, no markers, no paper and no interest in drawing or writing will not inspire their children.

Give the gift of “pre” prewriting to your child, and give them a head start today!

Looking for more information on handwriting and development?  Read Have More Fun When You Use Drawing To Develop Pre-Writing Skills and Why Dot-To-Dot Letter Practice Slows Down Writing Speed and Legibility.

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OXO for Kids: Great Tableware For Older Kids With Sensory and Motor Issues

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Does your child knock over her milk on a daily basis?  Do utensils seem to fly out of your son’s hands?  I treat kids with hypermobility, coordination and praxis issues, sensory discrimination limitations, etc.; they can all benefit from this terrific line of cups, dinnerware and utensils.

Yes, OXO, the same people that sell you measuring cups and mixing bowls: they have a line of children’s products.  Their baby and toddler items are great, but no 9 year-old wants to eat out of a “baby plate”.

OXO’s items for older kids don’t look or feel infantile.   The simple lines hide the great features that make them so useful to children with challenges:

  1. The plates and bowls have non-slip bases.  Those little nudges that have other dinnerware flipping over aren’t going to tip these items over so easily.
  2. The cups have a colorful grippy band that helps little hands hold on, and the strong visual cue helps kids place their hands in the right spot for maximal control.
  3. The utensils have a larger handle to provide more tactile, proprioceptive and kinesthetic input while eating.  Don’t know what that is?  Don’t worry!  It means that your child gets more multi-sensory information about what is in her hand so that it stays in her hand.
  4. The dinnerware and the cups can handle being dropped, but they have a bit more weight (thus more sensory feedback) than a paper plate/cup or thin plastic novelty items.
  5. There is nothing about this line that screams “adaptive equipment”.  Older kids are often very sensitive to being labeled as different, but they may need the benefits of good universal design.  Here it is!
  6. All of them are dishwasher-safe.  If you have a child with special needs, you really don’t want to be hand-washing dinnerware if you don’t have to.

For more information about mealtime strategies, please take a look at Which Spoon Is Best To Teach Grown-Up Grasp? and Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child.

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Can You Use The Wilbarger Protocol With Kids That Have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome?

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My posts on proprioception and hypermobility have been popular lately, leading me to think that parents (and therapists) want more information on the sensory basis for their children’s struggles, and that often their treatments don’t include addressing their sensory processing issues. The Ehles-Danlos Syndromes (yes, there are more variants than just vascular and hypermobile!) are somewhat rare connective tissue disorders that can create generalized joint hypermobility.   Kids with EDS are often diagnosed as having a coordination disorder before they get the EDS diagnosis, and their families describe them as “clumsy” or even “lazy”.  I see them as having sensory processing issues as well as neuromuscular and orthopedic issues.   Take a look at Hypermobility and ADHD? Take Stability, Proprioception, Pain and Fatigue Into Account Before Labeling Behavior and Hypermobility and Proprioception: Why Loose Joints Create Sensory Processing Problems for Children for more on this subject.  If you are an OT or a PT and you are thinking of using K-tape, read my post Can You K-Tape Kids With Ehlers-Danlos and Other Connective Tissue Disorders? before you begin.  You may change your approach after you read it!

There are some caveats in using techniques from sensory integration protocols with this population.  This doesn’t mean “no”; it means think about it first.  The use of the Wilbarger Protocol is one that requires some thought before initiating with EDS kids.

The Wilbarger Protocol:

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Wilbarger Protocol, it is a common treatment approach for children with sensory sensitivity, sensory discrimination issues and poor sensory modulation.  Created by Patricia Wilbarger, a terrifically talented OTR  who directly trained me as a young therapist, it is a neurologically-informed treatment that can be used quickly for both immediate improvement in sensory processing and it can make long-term alterations in the brain’s ability to use sensory input for movement and state control.  The Wilbarger Protocol involves skin brushing and joint compression in a carefully administered method that uses the “gate theory” of sensory processing to assist the nervous system in regulating awareness and arousal.

There have been other protocols for regulation developed over the years, and adaptations to the Wilbarger Protocol have occurred since it’s creation.  But daily and repeated use of brushing the skin and use of joint compression to deliver deep pressure input (to inhibit light touch registration and enhance proprioceptive discrimination) are the cornerstones of treatment delivery.

Adapting the Protocol for Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome

Since the Wilbarger Protocol was not created to treat EDS, I am recommending that therapists and parents consider adapting it to protect the joints and skin of children with EDS while still gaining benefit from this technique:

  • Reconsider using the brush.  Although the dual-treatment of brushing and joint compression makes this technique a powerful approach, kids with EDS often have skin that is more fragile than average.  It can bruise and tear more easily, especially with the vascular or classic EDS subtypes.  Small children will be brushed repeatedly over the same skin area, increasing the risk of shear, abrasion and bruising.  Children (and adults) with EDS will have skin reactions far in excess of the amount of pressure applied.  This is related to the assumption that the connective tissue that makes up skin and blood vessels is either weaker or thinner than typical children.  My advice: go with the joint compression component alone, and see if you get a clinically valid result without the risk of skin damage.
  • Make sure that you are well-trained in the positioning and administration of joint compression.  I have taken joint mobilization training courses, as well as having dual licenses in massage therapy and occupational therapy.  Being able to feel correct joint position and alignment is absolutely key when children have loose joints, so use this technique with care.  Avoid painful joints and limit repetition to the shortest amount needed to see a clinically meaningful response.
  •  Train parents extremely well before recommending home use.  Most parents can learn this technique with the right explanation and some practice.   If a parent seems unable to perform joint compression correctly, reconsider the use of a home program.  This has only happened once in my career.  A mom was truly unable to perceive the amount of force she was using.  She admitted that this had been an issue for her since childhood, and I suspected that she had her own sensory processing issues.  We moved on to other treatment choices.  There is never a reason to stick with a treatment that causes a risk to a child or makes a parent feel like they are a failure.  Ever.

The true skill of a therapist is the ability to offer the just-right challenge to each child, based on a therapist’s observations, assessment and knowledge base.  I believe that there are many kids with EDS that could benefit from the Wilbarger Protocol when it is effectively adapted to their needs.

Looking for more than blog posts?  Visit my website tranquil babies and purchase a phone/video session to discuss your concerns and learn about what occupational therapy has to offer your child!

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