Monday Medical: Occupational therapy for kids |

Monday Medical: Occupational therapy for kids

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

Occupational therapy helps patients with disabilities build and regain skills for daily life, whether at work or home. And it can be tailored especially for kids.

“We help patients reach maximum functional potential across settings, with a focus on supporting independence,” said Crystal Shamsi, an occupational therapist at UCHealth SportsMed Pediatric Therapy Clinic. “For kids, that means we work on skills for play and school and self-help skills, such as getting dressed and doing chores.”

Below, Shamsi outlines what to know about pediatric occupational therapy.

Who can benefit?

Children with a range of diagnoses, from Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, to genetic disorders and sensory processing issues, can benefit from occupational therapy.

Even if a child does not have a specific medical diagnosis, if parents or teachers notice the child is behind siblings or peers in certain abilities — such as participating in sports and doing homework or regulating emotions and eating a range of foods — occupational therapy can be beneficial.

“Some kids also have behavioral concerns, but when we look into why we’re seeing these behaviors, we may find there’s an underlying cause, such as a sensory processing issue,” Shamsi said. “When parents can get answers — and treatment — for these issues, you can just see the relief on their faces.”

A pediatric occupational therapist often works as a team with a physical therapist and a speech therapist, helping to ensure each patient builds the foundation needed for a variety of skills.

Shamsi likes to remind kids that getting therapy — or going to “the gym” as she calls it — isn’t something to be embarrassed about.

“We all have things that are easy for us, and we all have things that are hard for us,” Shamsi said. “My job is to help support the skills they’re already good at, while working on the things that might be tricky for them.”

How is it different than therapy for adults?

In a word, play.

“We have to get the buy-in from kids,” Shamsi said. “They won’t just sit there and do 10 reps of something — it needs to be fun. So, we have to be creative and find out what motivates them. And if it’s not working, we have to be on our toes and change it up.”

To make it fun, therapists use lots of props — from swings and games, to climbing walls and toys. Often, several props can be used at the same time: a child may balance on a swing while playing a game that supports fine-motor skills.

“They’re having fun because of the game, but also getting sensory and nervous system support, all while working on postural control, balance and fine motor skills,” Shamsi said.

How do I know if my child needs help?

Your child’s primary care physician can help identify issues, while teachers may notice a child struggling with tasks or other classroom behaviors that may signal the need for further help.

“I think parents often know, but many times, a kid will be getting by or the challenges will be attributed to his or her personality,” Shamsi said. “Definitely talk to your pediatrician about your concerns and know there’s help.”

Pediatric therapists typically see children from birth to 18 years, and they specialize in treating issues along the entire age range. If a parent does have concerns about their child’s development, getting help sooner rather than later may have benefits, as learning foundational skills can be easier at a younger age, and it can help stave off social issues that sometimes crop up.

What’s it like to see progress?

“With the kids, you can see them light up and feel empowered when they do something that they haven’t been able to do,” Shamsi said. “Parents feel proud, we feel proud as therapists. That’s the biggest joy of my job — I love my kids.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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