Occupational Therapy and Early Intervention

Often times we hear about physical therapy or even speech pathology, but we do not hear enough about occupational therapy. One of the main issues regarding occupational therapy is the lack of awareness of a resources that could be helping many individuals. The term itself can be a bit misleading for some. Hearing the word occupational, it can lead people to think about jobs and therefore, coming to the conclusion that is beneficial for the improvement of job duties through therapy. Although, that is one of the many benefits of occupational therapy, there are many more components that make up occupational therapy.  A very unique aspect about OT is that it can help people of all ages from newborns to people in their later years.

What is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy is a form of therapy that focuses on improving physical, sensory and cognitive skills of an individual through the practice of everyday activities.It focuses on helping the individual reach their maximum independence and efficiency. It works to give individuals the ability to do tasks they would do every day. Some tasks may include being able to do self-care activities such as being able to shower, being able to get dressed, open up a jar, among many more. Activities may also include duties related to their job but not limited to only those.

Settings of Occupational Therapy

The settings in which sessions are held vary from schools, homes, to clinics and hospitals depending on the state of the individual. For example, a child might receive therapy at home or at school, both settings which the child spends a great amount of time in. An adult who is recovering from an incident at work, who is medically stable may attend a clinic for therapy. On the other hand, an individual who recently suffered a stroke and is not medically stable will receive therapy in a hospital with the needed medical assistance. The settings can vary depending on age and how medically stable an individual might be. For children receiving occupational therapy sessions are often times held in settings that children spend majority of their time in for example, at home or at school. The purpose of limiting the settings where children receive therapy is due to ensuring the ability that children can transfer the skills learned during therapy (Babulal, Foster & Wolf, 2017). If children are placed in a setting such as a clinic and then have to apply those skills learned in a classroom, it might be difficult for the child to reapply those skills learned in a completely different setting to then, apply them in the classroom.

Who can receive Occupational Therapy?

As previously stated, people of all ages can receive occupational therapy. As young as newborns can benefit from occupational therapy. When treating the younger population occupational therapy focuses on improving the development of children and making sure they are on track to reaching each milestone in their development. It also focuses on promoting the independence of the child by increasing the number of tasks they can do on their own, as well as how effectively they are able to carry out each task.

Focuses of Occupational Therapy for Children

Occupational Therapy for children look to improve skills such as gross motor skills. Gross motor skills focus on children using different parts and muscles of their body along with body coordination and balance (Team, 2014). In a therapy session a child might have to complete an obstacle course. For example, a child might have to do some jumping jacks which will work on the movement of arms and legs and coordinating the two. A child might also have to crawl, walk on a balance beam, or something as simple as walking in a straight line to improve the balance of the child.

 Another focus of occupational therapy is improving fine motor skills. Fine motors skills help with strengthening of hand muscles. This is especially important for children when it comes to enter school and writing is necessary. Working on fine motor skills can help facilitate learning how to write. In order to improve fine motor skills a therapy session might consist of the child picking up small objects like buttons and putting them down in a line.

 Occupational therapy also focuses on helping children do self-care activities more independently (Team 2014). For example, a child might be struggling to feed themselves, the therapist will work to improve and help the child feed themselves more efficiently. Other self-care activities can also include helping them get dressed. The focus is not only on children being able to independently do these activities but getting the younger children to participate and engage in the activities as well.

 Another major part of a child’s life is engaging in play and socializing with other kids their age. Occupational therapy also aide children to facilitate their socialization with other kids and appropriately engage in play. Play is important during childhood because through play is when children make sense of the world and learn many new things. Occupational therapists can help children play with other children and learn concepts such as taking turns. Toys such as dolls and costumes can help children with imaginative play and promote their creativity.

Occupational therapy also focuses on developing the sensory skills of children. Sensory skills can be further developed through play by utilizing toys such as play dough. Children engage their sense of touch by making figures with the play dough. This activity can also allow children to use they imagination, as well as working on the child’s hand movement. Other sensory toys include sand, water toys and finger paints.

 Another important focus of occupational therapy is the focus on cognitive development. Therapist may present different patterns depending on the age of the child. For example, a small child may look at a pattern of three colors alternating and the therapist may ask the child to identify the next color. As the children grow older the patterns increase in difficulty. Patterns may be longer and incorporate more than one element. For example, it can vary in shape and color.

Occupational Therapy in Early Intervention

As previously stated, a unique aspect of occupational therapy is that it can help individuals of any age. Early intervention works with children ages 0 to 3. The purpose of early intervention is to help children at an early point to help them stay on track in their development. It has been demonstrated that early intervention also reduces the likelihood of future developmental delays (Caughy, DiPietro & Strobino, 1994).  This time frame is very important in the development of children, it is when they are retaining a lot of information and when a huge part of their development takes place (Opp, 2018). It is important to receive help at an early stage.

Occupational therapy in early intervention focuses various core principles. As previously discussed, therapy not only focuses on having the physical ability to do certain tasks. It also focuses on the participation of the individual and having them engage in their activities. Such as children engaging in play because through play they learn many new things. Next is occupation, which involves self-care activities such as feeding themselves and getting dressed. Also the importance of a natural environment meaning sessions take place in a setting that the child is often in, in order for skills to be easily transferable. Examples include school or the child’s own home (Stoffel & Schleis, 2014).

What really makes occupational therapy in early intervention unique and effective is the involvement of parents. Another core principle is family-centered. It really takes into account the input of the parents and what they see would be more beneficial for their child. Therapists also consider what parents believe their child need more work on and the strengths of the child (Stoffel & Schleis, 2014). Therapists also take into consideration the culture, routines and rituals of the family. It looks at ways in which they can incorporate activities into existing routines. Therapists are also sensitive to the capacity and resources the family has available for example, their economic standing. Lastly, occupational therapy is also evidence-based meaning there is always research being done.

Occupational therapy can benefit many individuals especially children. It is important to seek help at an early stage in order for children to be on track with their development. Receiving intervention early can prevent future delays from occurring. It is important to pay attention to the development of children and make sure they are hitting each milestone. Occupation therapy in early intervention can positively impact the development of children.

Early intervention can be publicly funded but may depend of state’s law. Some states may require a copay while other states may offer the service at no cost. Additional information can be found on the Illinois Department of Human Services. Website offers a DHS Office Locator to find the nearest office near you. You can also call 1-800-447-6404. For an automated service call 1-800-323-GROW (4769).


Babulal, G. M., Foster, E. R., & Wolf, T. J. (2016). Facilitating Transfer of Skills and Strategies in Occupational Therapy Practice: Practical Application of Transfer Principles. Asian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 11(1), 19–25. http://doi.org/10.11596/asiajot.11.19

Caughy, M. O., DiPietro, J. A. and Strobino, D. M. (1994), Day-Care Participation as a Protective Factor in the Cognitive Development of Low-Income Children. Child Development, 65: 457–47. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8624.1994.tb00763.x/full

Opp, A. (2018). Das Framework der AOTA. Occupational Therapy in Early Intervention: Helping Children Succeed.

Stoffel, A., & Schleis, R. (2014). What is the Role of Occupational Therapy in Early? Intervention? Retrieved from https://www.aota.org/~/media/Corporate/Files/Practice/Children/Browse/EI/Role-of-OT_1/Early-Intervention-FAQ.PDF

Team, T. U. (n.d.). Occupational Therapy: What You Need to Know. Retrieved February 28, 2018, from    https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/treatments-approaches/therapies/occupational-therapy-what-you-need-to-know

Occupational Therapy by Yesenia Martinez