Occupational therapy is the antidote for pandemic skill loss

Key points:

Over three years since the pandemic’s onset, students’ social, emotional, and academic development have clearly suffered. Research shows that the average student lost approximately one-third of a school year to the pandemic, leading to academic setbacks and missed opportunities for building skills fostered in school settings, such as learning to form routines and study habits, solve problems, and follow directions.

As students suffer broadly from these gaps in development, schools across the country need creative solutions to provide all students with extra support during this challenging time.

Occupational therapy (OT) is well-equipped to address this need, but the field is commonly overlooked or misunderstood. Occupational therapists (OTs) are health professionals who support clients with developing or regaining physical, sensory, or cognitive skills used in everyday life including executive functioning skills and skills for independent living. OTs are trained to be holistic, big-picture thinkers, enabling them to meet clients where they are and assist them in achieving their individual goals. However, a general lack of public awareness of the nuances of OT means that its broad benefits often go unrealized, especially regarding its potential in schools.

By fostering a greater understanding of OT as a highly specialized yet expansive field, and by supporting OTs in leadership positions, we can ensure we are maximizing their potential benefits and help students reach their growth objectives.

Perhaps the most common misconception about the field is that school-based OTs focus solely on practice areas like handwriting and sensory processing. The reality is that OTs can assist people in many areas depending on clients’ needs and environments. While one client may want to pursue a skill like handwriting, another may be more interested in developing self-advocacy, decision-making, or goal setting skills. As a result of their comprehensive training, OTs are adaptable and versatile in their approach to supporting a portfolio of clients with varying needs.

The range of individuals who can benefit from OT services is also larger than commonly believed. Most people perceive OTs as only helping younger children, but they are also effective in supporting individuals of all ages, including teenagers transitioning to adulthood and adults in their 20s and 30s. At Ivy Street, OTs offer programming for various age groups, including an integrated model of OT support in both the residences and classrooms for students ages 13-21 and a “Skills for Life” program which supports clients ages 16 and older in their home communities. Although students and participants have different goals, OTs work with the same guiding mission: to help clients become more independent and achieve their own definitions of success.

Given the many different hats that OTs can wear, they are uniquely positioned to support students in getting back on track with their goals coming out of the pandemic. OTs can assist students with skills they may be struggling to build or regain during this time – especially skills that affect overarching performance like forming study habits, maintaining focus, or staying organized. Mastering these types of skills can have far-reaching benefits for students both academically and personally. Having effective study habits, for example, may help a student improve their grades, but on a broader scale, having this skill also helps the student gain greater independence in their daily routine and build up their self-confidence.

To be broadly accepted as practitioners who can provide such a breadth of assistance, OTs themselves must have a seat at the table alongside educational and regulatory leaders in decision-making processes. Their presence here is vital to ensuring their voices and their clients’ needs are best represented. For example, a school committee without OT representation may not be aware of the benefits OT promises for both neurodivergent and neurotypical students, leading the committee to potentially neglect the field when considering supports to help all students recover skills lost during the pandemic. When given opportunities to stand as equals with educational and regulatory leaders, OTs can help to fill gaps in understanding by clarifying what kinds of OT services are available and advocating for OT as a broad practice to ensure that students can access the full scope of OT work.

As educational and regulatory leaders seek solutions for guiding students through this phase of pandemic recovery, we have only scratched the surface of what OTs have to offer. However, over the course of my 14 years at Ivy Street, I’ve seen OT services grow to help more and more students as they work towards their personal, academic, and post-secondary goals. This gives me hope that other schools can broaden access to OT services for their students, too.

By encouraging greater understanding of OTs’ full scope of practice in the mainstream, and by pushing for OTs to occupy positions needed to advocate for their work amongst educational and regulatory bodies, we can maximize the benefits of OT work to meet this moment and ensure all students have access to the tools and supports they need to thrive.

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