In my school district, we are fortunate to have an amazing team of occupational therapists. They not only support students one-on-one, but I have had the good fortune of collaborating with them in all kinds of ways as a district literacy coach.
Christine and Bailee, two of our district’s occupational therapists, have helped me co-present workshops for teachers. In a series of workshops, we worked together to give teachers the basics of why fine motor development is so important, both physically and cognitively, and helped everybody to a deeper understanding of why a strong handwriting component to our word study and writing workshop would be important.
They’ve also joined our district ELA Committee’s meetings, to weigh in on the important decision of selecting a district-wide, consistent handwriting program. Their expertise in this area was invaluable to the group of mostly classroom teachers, who until then had only experienced snippets of handwriting training.
Just last Wednesday, Bailee joined in on a grade-level meeting to help teachers add handwriting tools to their conferring toolkits for writing workshop, including tips on how to teach basic shapes for drawing!
Our occupational therapists have been some of my biggest collaborators as a literacy educator, and I’m so thankful to have them. For this blog post, we joined together in an “email-interview.” I sent them the questions, and being the true collaborators they are, they joined together to co-create their responses. Here they are:
Beth: What are the three most important things classroom teachers need to know more about to support their students with the physical act of writing (and the cognitive aspects)?
Bailee & Christine:
1. Motor progression of fine motor development. Remember that fine motor skills develop from the core out to the hands. It’s always a good idea to start with core strength and weight bearing through the arms.
2. Interrelatedness of sensory and fine motor skills. Sensory and motor are very tightly connected. Writing requires so much regulation, focus, and planning before we even put the pencil to the paper. A lot of motor activities that will strengthen the core and work on hand strength will also provide sensory input (and can be helpful for regulating emotions as well).
3. Set up the general classroom environment and students’ individual work-spaces for success. When young students are learning to write letters, it is best to have them sit in a supportive position. This should be feet flat on the floor, back against the chair, tummy close to the table, table height between belly button and bottom of the ribs. This can be challenging to do with growing students. Try to provide foot stools (can be old phone books, yoga blocks, etc). Once students get stronger and are fluid with writing letters and words, you can change the position and allow for writing on the floor, beanbags, and other options.
Beth: What are a few ways OTs can help teachers incorporate the most important things?
Bailee & Christine:
Fine motor, sensory motor and handwriting skills should be embedded throughout the day and occupational therapists are great at helping teachers do that in an age-appropriate way.
1.Consider coloring with broken crayons, tape large pieces of paper under tables or at the bottom the wall or at shoulder height with fun activities. This will put students in different positions and build strength in their shoulders. If you’re not sure if the materials or writing utensils you are using are “just right” for your students, an occupational therapist is a great person to consult.
2.Sensory bins or playdough with hidden objects related to theme or academic areas. Add numbers or letters and ask the students to find one and draw it in the sand/rice/beans or build it from playdough. Tweezers can also be a fun way to add tools and work on precision. You might consult with an occupational therapist if you notice any of your students are excessively challenged or frustrated by fine motor activities like these.
3. Arts and crafts can be a fun way to add hand strength and coordination. Cutting, gluing, tearing paper, paint, beads, eye droppers, and gluing Q-tips to build are all easy ways to sneak in fine motor skill building. These activities can be open-ended, play-based, or part of a themed activity. If you’re wondering how to squeeze it all in, a school-based occupational therapist can help you think creatively about places in your current schedule where some of these activities can fit into what you’re already doing during the day.
Beth: What are a few ways we (literacy coach and OTs) have worked together in the past that worked well, that maybe other schools could try as well?
Bailee & Christine:
Occupational therapists and physical therapists are often the only professional staff in a school who have specific training in motor development and the sensory systems and how they affect students’ access to education. Although some school occupational therapists are focused at the student level, we are lucky enough to have a supportive administration that sees the value in our unique lens when it comes to the sensory motor needs of our students.
We have joined ELA committees and school and district-level meetings, provided grade-level trainings, and joined grade-level PLCs to help guide curriculum development and implementation. While we spend most of our time serving individual students, we also have been able to collaborate in a variety of ways to provide classroom teachers with tools to serve all students in every classroom.
Beth: What can teachers do, or what resources should they know about, if they don’t have access to an occupational therapist in their school?
Bailee & Christine:
If teachers don’t have access to an occupational therapist in their school there are many online resources. Try a Google search for reliable school-based OT/PT websites to find information and suggestions (like our own website for teachers and families in our district). They can also reach out to a private-practice or outpatient occupational therapist for a consultation.
Also, using a consistent and established handwriting program across grade levels is essential. The Learning Without Tears website has some wonderful resources.
Beth: Anything else teachers should know?
Bailee & Christine:
Don’t forget to have fun and when possible give your students a variety of materials to use and seating positions throughout the day. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your schools’ occupational therapists.
Throughout the week, we’d love to hear your thoughts. We even have a book giveaway for those of you who share comments!
- This giveaway is for a copy Your Students, My Students, Our Students: Rethinking Equitable and Inclusive Classrooms by Lee Ann Jung, Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Julie Kroener. Many thanks to ASCD for donating a copy for one reader.
- For a chance to win this copy of Your Students, My Students, Our Students: Rethinking Equitable and Inclusive Classrooms, please leave a comment on any of our blog series posts Sun., November 6th at Noon EST. Sarah Valter will use a random number generator to pick the winner whose name will be announced in the blog series wrap-up post on Mon., Nov. 7th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Sarah can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at ASCD will ship the book to you.
- If you are the winner of the book, Sarah will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – STRONGER TOGETHER BLOG SERIES. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.