Learning disabilities: How occupational therapists can help your child


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boy playing with blocksContrary to popular belief, learning disabilities can affect people with average or above-average intelligence. According to the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, 1 in 10 Canadians have a learning disability that is identified as ‘the gap between the level of achievement that is expected and the level actually achieved’. A child may have a learning disability for a variety of reasons and it can affect their ability to listen, speak, read, write or complete mathematic problems. This can present significant difficulties in the classroom where the child is expected to demonstrate his/her learning through different skills. The good news is that if your child has been diagnosed with a learning disability and/or is experiencing challenges with their school work, there are valuable and educational therapies that can help, such as occupational therapy.


How can occupational therapy help my child?


When a child has been diagnosed with a learning disability, the therapist works closely with them to optimize their engagement at school and in their home environment. Occupational therapists help the child gain independence and develop new skills to increase their ability to participate in daily activities such as self-care, playing, and learning. Occupational therapists usually focus on the underlying motor problems, attentional challenges or visual perceptual deficits that may be contributing to or causing the child’s academic difficulties. Children with learning disabilities may also find it difficult to organize themselves or sequence the actions that are needed to complete common daily tasks. The therapist can help establish effective routines and break down information into steps that the child will be able to follow. While occupational therapists cannot diagnose a learning disability, a psychological assessment can provide them with specifics about a child’s strengths and weaknesses. This enables occupational therapist to select the most appropriate support treatement and make recommendations best suited to the child.


Here are a few programs that occupational therapists use to address learning difficulties:


Printing – Difficulties with printing are very common. Evidence-based printing programs promote the use of developmentally appropriate material and multi-sensory tools, and often help children learn more effectively. This encourages children to actively participate with materials that address different styles of learning. For example, Handwriting Without Tears is an excellent child-centered program that uses these strategies.

Attention and Self-Regulation – Difficulties in this area may be addressed through programs that use a cognitive behavioural approach to teach self-regulation and categorize the child’s level of alertness. Children learn about how to calm their body when they are in a high arousal state or how to excite their body when they are in a low arousal state. Program goals often include how to keep their body feeling “just right” so that they are able to attend to and focus on learning tasks. Occupational therapists find programs such as The Zones of Regulation and The Incredible 5-Point Scale to be very successful in addressing these areas.

Child-Centered Collaboration – Difficulties should be solved collaboratively. Occupational therapists encourage collaboration with teachers and parents in order to support each individual child. This helps to provide necessary accommodations and develop effective strategies to improve the child’s engagement in the classroom environment. For example, the therapist may recommend the incorporation of movement breaks throughout the child’s day to allow him/her to better focus on and attend to challenging lessons. They may also recommend that a schedule be used to allow the child to anticipate what may happen next in the class to support positive transitions between activities.

By Ashley Faux and Ashley Cooper

Ashley Cooper has several years’ experience as a practicing Occupational Therapist. She earned a Masters of Occupational Therapy at the University of Toronto in 2010 and a Bachelor of Health Science at the University of Western Ontario in 2007. She works closely with her colleagues in other disciplines including Physiotherapists, Speech-Language Pathologists, Behavioural Therapists, and Psychologists. Ashley is certified as a COGMED Coach and works closely with the Psychology team to implement this program.

Ashley Faux has several years’ experience as a practicing Occupational Therapist. She earned a Master of Occupational Therapy Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia in 2009, and a B.A. Psychology with a specialization in Child Development at McMaster University in 2007. She is a certified Level 3 Oral Placement Therapy (OPT) Therapist and is trained in Handwriting Without Tears. She works with her team, collaborating with Physiotherapists, Speech-Language Pathologists and Behavioural Therapists.

Children’s Support Solutions has been offering families and children a means to access Occupational Therapy as well as other therapeutic services for over 15 years.  Children’s Support Solutions helps children of all ages in achieving their scholastic, social, and emotional potential by providing easy access to a team of specialists in Psychology, Neuropsychology, Behaviour Therapy, Special Education, Psychoeducation, Guidance Counselling, Speech-Language Pathology, Physiotherapy,and Occupational Therapy.  

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