5 ways that occupational therapy can support children’s social skills

An occupational therapist teaches kids to tie their shoe laces and hold a pencil properly, right?

Well… we suppose that can be true…. but children’s occupational therapists who specialise in supporting kids’ social, emotional and functional skills can play a much bigger part in children’s learning and social success.

Here, children’s occupational therapist Allyce Cunningham explains what OTs do and how an occupational therapist might be able to support the development of your child’s social skills.

What does a children’s occupational therapist do?

An occupational therapist’s primary goal is to enable people to participate in the activities of everyday life.

Paediatric (or children’s) occupational therapists achieve this outcome by working with children, families and communities to enhance kids’ ability to engage in the ‘occupations’ they want to, need to, or are expected to participate in.

Sometimes this means modifying the child’s ‘occupation’ or their environment to better support their occupational ‘engagement’ (World Federation of Occupational Therapy, 2012).

Occupational therapy for children

A wise person once said that “play is rehearsal for life”….

Much of your child’s time is probably taken up with play, because being a “friend” or a “player” is the main occupation for kids!

Being able to play effectively and cooperatively requires the development of social skills, which can often be an area of difficulty for many children.

One of the many things that children’s occupational therapists do is help kids to participate in the play activities that are build their social skills.

How occupational therapy supports the development of social skills

There are many ways in which an occupational therapist may be able to support your child’s developing social skills, including:

Breaking the task down

Some children may miss the “more obvious” social cues or steps within a game or social activity.

The sequence of play is not always obvious to kids, so paediatric occupational therapists break activities down into teachable steps and then show children what is expected of them in social situations.

This supports and promotes learning and gives children an understanding of appropriate behaviours.

Using your child’s interests

Play is something that your child does for the fun of it!

Depending on your child’s age, play may be described more as social events or activities, or even leisure time.

Regardless of your child’s age, he or she needs to develop an intrinsic motivation to play in a meaningful way.

When helping children learn to play and expand their social interests, occupational therapists help families to identify and support their child’s play and social skill development through using a child’s interests.

If your child is into trains, planes, rockets, Peppa Pig or dolls…we can use these things in your child’s occupational therapy sessions to build social skills, and show you how to carry on with this at home using the things that your child is interested in as a teaching ‘tool’.

Understanding the environment

The environment can influence the way your child plays or engages in social activities.

A busy playground, or noisy, crowded schoolyard may affect your child’s ability to function easily and appropriately in those environments, and this is often an area in which a children’s occupational therapist can help.

OTs understand the impact of the environment on kids and can help parents and teachers to develop strategies that can help your child to cope better in the environments he or she finds challenging.

Acknowledging the stages of play

As your child grows and develops, he or she will move through a number of stages that build upon each other and require a different set of social skills.

Through assessment and observation, an occupational therapist can assist in identifying a stage of play your child may be at and suggest activities that may be beneficial to further promote your child’s play repertoire.

Gaining an appreciation for the benefits of play and social skills

As adults we can occasionally forget the importance of play and social skills, especially when a child is at school and their academic demands increase.

Occupational therapists highlight the importance of play and social skills, because it’s through development in  these areas that children learn how to:

  • negotiate difficult social situations or conflict,
  • adapt to change,
  • learn about emotions,
  • develop problem solving skills, and
  • learn about social roles…

What are your child’s social skills like?

So as you can see, there’s more to being a children’s occupational therapist that teaching kids to hold a pencil properly!

A children’s OT who specialises in supporting kids’ social skills can be a fantastic ally for any child or family who needs social skills support.

If you would like to further discuss your child’s play and social skills, please contact the friendly children’s occupational therapy team at Kids First Children’s Services on (02) 9938 5419

We’d be happy to help your child and family!

Learn more about occupational therapy at Kids First here

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