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Occupational therapy in a distance learning world: Top 3 tips for a successful experience.

When school districts decided to close down for the safety of the students and its employees at the beginning of the pandemic, our OT team converted into a full virtual learning program due to Covid-19. I would consider this one of those pivotal moments in my professional career where I had to challenge everything I knew about school-based OT. Assessment timelines and IEPs stopped and service delivery needed a whole new model, thus sending our team into panic mode as we kept refreshing our emails for updates and answers on what direction we should start to look into as we work on revising our program… days passed, even weeks! We had a plan, but we could not put it in motion because it depended on our governing body, so it became a waiting game. Every single OT in school-based were doing it differently, and we realized that this has always been the nature of being an OT in a school-based environment. There was no correct way to do this, I mean, when have we had to execute best practice during a pandemic?! What we knew was, the right thing to do is to be there for our students and parents in their new learning environment... their home.

Our team had an emergency meeting and together, we created a plan with the knowledge that we had and the only concrete direction we had, which was to DO WHAT IS BEST FOR THE STUDENTS! We decided to have parents pick up packages when they picked up their technology, and for those who couldn’t pick it up, we mailed it out. We called the parents of every student on our caseload to see if they would be interested in virtual sessions. This was extremely difficult for us because we knew that on top of them having to be a parent, they have involuntarily became a teacher/staff support, and now we are asking them to be a therapist as well.

We found ourselves, like many others, starting to wear a variety of hats as well. We were technical support, emotional support, teachers, UPS/FEDEX, mediator, life coach… etc. all while maintaining a work/home balance. But what all of these roles have taught me was that, our OT team became a safe and reliable contact for all our parents who were experiencing a multitude of challenges with the changes that COVID-19 had brought upon them.

Six weeks later with many trials and errors, distance learning had ceased for the 19-20 school year. We might be continuing the world of distance learning come August, we might not. There are so many variables in the equation that determines our future that is out of our control. But as we venture into the unknown, I wanted to share things that can be in our control, so here are my top tips for successful virtual learning as an OT in school based (during a pandemic, nonetheless).

Bridge the gap between school and home.
  • This phrase means many things, but what I'm referring to is the divide and/or mistrust between parents and school/district. THAT IS NOT HOW IT IS SUPPOSE TO BE! We are suppose to be on the same IEP TEAM, but sometimes it feels like we're competing against each other. Keep an open and honest communication with your student’s families. Be transparent, be real! I can’t emphasize how important this is in building a rapport with families. Be empathetic and mindful that your student’s families are trying to adjust to the new routine, just like us. Have multiple options for parents to contact you via email, text, call. Be flexible in your hours, especially for parents who are essential workers and need to get back to you after work hours. HELP where you can, and sometimes that means going above and beyond your job duties. Studies have shown that those who often do so, are the happiest.

Develop plans A, B, and C… and possibly D.
  • This is my OT life motto. There are so many things that can go the opposite direction of what you have intended for a virtual session. Whether it is unstable internet connection, lack of student participation, student having difficulties sitting still in front of a computer, face-to-face meeting platform lagging because you are sharing/presenting, program freezing in the middle of sessions, missed meeting times,… etc. To remedy this, I treatment plan ahead. If your home wifi does not allow for a consistent and smooth internet connection, try using a hotspot on your phone. If that does not work, simply apologize and offer the family a phone consultation instead or rescheduling for a later time. Families that are experiencing other technical difficulties? Walk them through the process! Be okay with being and OT/IT. If you are on Zoom, ask to give remote control over their computer to train them how to access certain programs. If the student needs sensory support, give parents ideas on how to incorporate OT components into everyday life (cooking time is a great opportunity to experience sensory play, laundry time allows for heavy work activities… etc.). If you find that the virtual platform might not be the best learning model for the student, try addressing it creatively. Explore what highly motivates the student and go back to the drawing treatment board to incorporate a reward system and create individualized activities with their favorite characters. Client centered, client centered, client centered!

Meet them where they are at.
  • Maladaptive behaviors may arise, regression may occur. This is expected. It is the new temporary normal. Students who have already established a school routine now has to adjust to a completely different routine… a change in routine is difficult for us, even as adults. Difficult, but not impossible. We were born to adapt! Students with disabilities can adapt when given the right tools and supports from the right people. You can still help the parents help the child. Collaborating with a behavioral specialist for ideas on how to create client-centered social stories addressing certain challenges, token boards, and activities makes all the difference in creating and reinforcing positive behaviors. Show parents calming strategies to incorporate in their routine, maybe even some mindfulness tools they can access for themselves. Consider this question when creating resources, "If someone gave this to me, would I use this?" Make it as simple and user friendly as possible. Be creative and have all tools and resources print-free and completely virtual!

My Bui, MS, OTR/L
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