by Caitlyn Berry
Spending all day stuck in your home with young kids is challenging for any parent. This struggle is intensified when you have a child with special needs. Without access to the usual school resources, activities, and therapies, a child’s routine can fall apart, and with it, so can parents’ sanity.
That’s why I start every virtual therapy session with an honest conversation about how the family is doing and I pose a simple question: How can I be most helpful today?
As a pediatric occupational therapist (OT), I work with a variety of children with developmental delays and disabilities, from tiny babies born prematurely with motor delays to toddlers with sensory needs to pre-teens with Down syndrome working on self-care skills. Every day is different, but prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent most days driving around the Richmond area to provide therapy sessions in families’ homes. Now I spend each day sitting in front of my laptop teaching parents how to be therapists for their children.
Real-World Telehealth Examples
Providing therapy through telehealth has been a whole new world for all of us pediatric therapists, and certainly not without challenges. One amazing takeaway though has been seeing how capable and empowered parents are when we’re virtually coaching them on activities to do with their child.
One mother last week wanted to work on helping her 16-month-old daughter learn to drink from an open cup. After the mom and I talked through some strategies, she found a small decorative cup and we had a virtual tea party complete with her daughter joining me to cheers through the webcam.
An almost 3-year-old boy hated getting his hands messy – so much so that it was affecting his willingness to feed himself. His mom had to sit with him and feed him every bite at mealtimes. One week his mom and I talked about playing with food. For the next session, his mom had a canvas with finger paints made from yogurt and food coloring all set up before the telehealth call even began. By the end of the hour-long session, this young boy – who initially ran away from the table after first seeing the yogurt paint – had finished his masterpiece on the canvas and was using a paint brush to paint the yogurt across his face and body. He progressed leaps and bounds in that session because of the activity his parent set up and the therapeutic strategies she used, as I sat back providing feedback and smiling from ear to ear.
A Formula that’s Flexible Works
So often as therapists, we do almost all the hands-on therapy, taking a show-and-tell approach to teaching parents how to best help their child. However, the research indicates adults actually learn best by doing. And now as therapists, we’re virtually sitting on our hands as we coach and explain to parents how to do the therapeutic strategies we would typically be using. And the parents are absolutely rocking it and surprising us all.
Right now, it’s uncertain when we will return to providing therapy in the families’ homes and no one seems to be in a rush to do so. Not only is therapy through telehealth safer, it’s also forcing new opportunities for parent coaching. We tend to say, “parents are the expert on their child,” and explain further that we’re the experts in our area of therapy.
But now, who’s to say parents can’t also become expert collaborators in meeting their child’s speech, physical, and occupational therapy needs, too?
Caitlyn Berry, OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist at SOAR365, a Richmond-based not-for-profit company created in 1954 by area families who were determined to find a better way of caring for their loved ones with disabilities. SOAR365 employs more than 400 individuals, including nearly 200 who have a disability. SOAR365’s wide range of programs and services are designed for individuals and families who are coping with the daily real world challenges of living with a disability. To learn more about SOAR365’s Pediatric Therapy services and other programs, visit soar365.org.