If you aren’t sure what homeschool has to do with occupational therapy, it’s time to take a closer look. From sensory processing to fine and gross motor skills, having a better understanding of how your child experiences the world physically could be the secret to unlocking more success academically. We sat down with Kristin Palen, the pediatric occupational therapist (with over 18 years of experience) behind @coastalconnectionsOT and homeschool mom, to talk about how an OT approach can help you tackle handwriting, emotional regulation, and more. Here are our six biggest takeaways from our IG LIVE.
1. When beginning a new skill or activity, look for that “just right” challenge.
Often when a lesson isn’t working, it’s because the child is a) bored or b) frustrated. This is why it’s so important to meet your child where they are. If your child is struggling, start the activity from a place where you know your child can be successful, then progress to a level just above where they are currently. This way, they will be challenged but not frustrated or discouraged about continuing to work on this skill. And, remember: You are not running out of time. Rushing them before they’re ready will only set you both up for more frustration.
2. Learning to write involves so much more than a child’s fingers.
The same way a runner needs to strengthen more than just their feet to be successful, learning to write involves strength in your child’s whole body. Long before your child ever picks up a pencil, work with them to strengthen core and shoulder strength through gross motor movements like balancing, climbing, and rhythm activities. Next, fine motor activities will strengthen their hands and fingers. Working with playdough, digging in sand, playing with LEGOs, and coloring are all examples of activities that can strengthen these crucial muscles. Click here for a free printable from Kristin on how to manage handwriting struggles.
Once they’re ready for pencil and paper, it’s still important to remember that this is a challenging new skill. Start with just a few minutes a day and build up slowly. (Yes, we promise 5-10 minutes is enough!)
3. To teach your child how to emotionally regulate, meet them on their level.
For very young children, that means helping them recognize the physical symptoms of their emotions, from sweaty hands to a nervous stomach. Regular body checks throughout the day can help them learn to recognize what is happening in their body, and eventually to manage their emotions in a healthy way. You might say, “I noticed your eyes are squinched up…how is your face feeling?” Body check gauges can also help your child to recognize and relate their emotions in language they understand. Click here for a free downloadable gauge from Kristin!
4. Prioritize rhythms over schedules.
Instead of a strict time table of when you’ll do certain activities, spend time observing your child and their rhythm—and then adapt your lessons to that. For example, some children need to play or do heavy work (like pushing, pulling, tree climbing, etc.) before they’re ready to focus and learn. Others might get tired in the afternoon and learn better right after breakfast. This also includes recognizing which activities can help your child feel calmer when emotions are high so you can apply them when needed.
5. When meltdowns or tantrums happen, the first step is regulating yourself.
We want to invite our children to join our calm—not join them in their storm. The first step is modeling self-regulation, sometimes by stepping away for a moment, taking deep breaths, or doing what we need to do to calm ourselves down. Eventually, they will feed off our quiet energy and join us. Then, it’s time to reconnect by cuddling, reading a book, playing with blocks, or doing another quiet activity. Once your child is calm, this is a great time to do a body check to help them recognize what is happening in their body.
6. Behavior is communication.
Often, children don’t have the language or understanding to communicate when they are struggling emotionally or sensorially. It’s our job to provide them with the assistance they need to succeed. Sometimes that’s by providing more information. If your child is constantly asking when a lesson will end or you need to work on something they don’t look forward to, try using a timer to give them a visual cue for how long you will be working on it.
If your child is struggling, it can also help to include them in the process of finding a strategy for success. You might say, “It looks like this is really frustrating for you. What do you think would help?” Finally, try positive affirmations to build their confidence, like, “I can do hard things” or “If I try, I will get better at this.” (Feel free to repeat those to yourself, too!)