Melissa D. Hulton, OTR/L, Director of Occupational Therapy at The Kingsbury Center, explains what “occupational” means when discussing her profession.
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me as an Occupational Therapist, “Do you help people get jobs?” I’d be rich (in the monetary sense). I already consider myself “rich” in terms of having a satisfying and enriching profession. Now to answer the question I’m often asked, no, it is not the role of an Occupational Therapist to find employment for people.
So why is “occupational” used to describe this line of work? Occupation is not just a person’s job or profession. It is also defined as an activity that a person spends time doing. Occupational Therapists (OTs) work with individuals throughout the lifespan who are affected by an injury or disability. OTs use therapeutic activities to help their clients become as independent and functional as possible in the “activities” that they both need and desire to do.
For an infant their “occupation” is to learn to explore their world. An OT can help them learn how to turn their head and scan their environment to find their mother’s face, to reach out for a rattle, roll over, sit up and pinch their first cheerio. Being a toddler is all about play and learning basic life skills for their age group: how to use their body and hands to play with their toys, use a fork or spoon, drink from a cup and perform basic dressing skills. For a preschooler, OTs assist with school readiness skills, such as learning how to hold a marker or crayon, cut snips into paper, open their snack containers and perform basic self-help skills. For older children and teens, not only are we helping the client to develop skills to be a full-time student, but also skills for building friendships, hobbies and interests.
Jumping into adulthood, our clients have many “occupations,” not just the “job” they may perform each day for a living, but also the “jobs” of taking care of their families, homes and themselves. As an occupational therapist, my goal is to help them to develop motor and cognitive skills, as well as to adapt activities and the environment in order to support an individual to become as independent as possible. This involves what they can and cannot do physically and mentally, and how they use daily tools and materials.
Over the past 23 years, I have had the opportunity to assist clients in every age group in a variety of settings, but I have to admit that my true love is working with children. I have worked in pediatric OT for 20 out of those 23 years, and been at Kingsbury since 2001. Working at The Kingsbury Center as an OT means that every day is a new, exciting and challenging opportunity to help a child. And I mean challenging in a good way. I have the opportunity and privilege to help our students in their “occupation” of being a student and peer.
In addition to assisting children, I love being an OT because it permits me to use my creativity to provide therapy in a fun way. Many times a student doesn’t even realize that he or she is seeing me for “therapy.” To help a student be ready to learn and pay attention, we may take a walk around the school, do some wall push-ups or take a break moving on a swing to help their bodies feel calm and regulated. For development of hand and motor skills, we may work with putty and playdough to strengthen hands and fingers, use a clothespin to move a marker around a game board and practice forming letters in paint and shaving cream. To improve eye function we can play “eye spy” in a variety of environments, complete mazes and word finds and practice copying from books, computers or the smart board within the classroom. By developing these skills I am helping a student build the foundational skills for writing, typing and managing daily tools and materials.
As students get older, I not only look at needed motor skills, but how we can support the client in their daily organization and executive functioning needs. It is my job to look at each aspect of the school day to support teachers and help students make progress and be as independent as possible. Can they unpack their backpack in the morning, get out needed materials for each assignment, transition from one activity or class to another and remember to turn in their homework or take their homework home at the end of the day? I also look at how the student plans, sequences and executes the needed steps for daily school, classroom and personal activities. This may involve helping the student to develop skills to utilize checklists, organizational routines and systems, planners and technology-based programs and applications.
As an Occupational Therapist here at Kingsbury, I feel like I have the best “occupation” there is. I get to spend each day being creative and innovative in helping our students to master the “activities” they need to be the best that they can be.
Kingsbury OTs are certified, licensed and experienced. They provide services to students at Kingsbury Day School, as well as to children, teen and adult clients throughout the Washington Metro area on a private pay basis. To request an occupational therapy evaluation or service, please visit http://www.kingsbury.org/services/request-therapist.cfm
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