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OTPs Role in Mental Health

I was recently asked to provide some insight on the OTP's role in mental health (primarily in schools). I wrote something up and thought it may be helpful for you!

I've been in the schools for 23 years but primarily hired by a district for 17. I've observed the drastic increase in social and emotional needs across each grade in elementary school and how it is affecting their ability to learn and socialize. As the OT I've tried to implement some SEL programs and have consistently taught Zones of Regulation lessons to the self-contained classrooms and inclusion classrooms for approximately 12 years. 

Since I was doing the ZOR lessons and advocating for it my district included me (as the OT) in the SEL committees. I know this is rare but I was a "squeaky wheel!" We discussed the roles of the social workers, OTs, and school psychs and how we can work together.  At my school district, they have put a lot of money into the "Connected and Respected" program (which is taught by social workers and psychologists to full classrooms) and into restorative practices. Since I was teaching the Zones we just always taught both because they do correlate with each other. However, over the years I realized that since the social workers were teaching such a specific and similar program, I could see the OT role a little differently. 


I educated myself and extensively reviewed the 5 core competencies of CASEL and can understand and explain how unmet sensory needs are related to each and every one of the competencies. I also saw an increase in OT referrals for sensory or behavior issues over the years. So, this is one of the reasons Gwen Wild and I wrote a curriculum for sensory modulation that can be taught to full classrooms (or small groups or individuals)...called Just Right! A Sensory Modulation Curriculum for K-5. 

Wow! This has been a game-changer!

I now push into at least 6 classrooms a week to teach this curriculum. In addition, I've given school-wide inservices about OT and SEL during the summer and school year. The district has also purchased a copy of the curriculum for teachers to teach for themselves in the classroom. It's so amazing to see first and second-graders saying the words "proprioception" and "vestibular" and then explaining them to others or giving examples. Teachers LOVE that I come in and participate with the kids during the lessons. I can then correlate the sensory needs with their emotions and it's coming around full circle!

I've explained that it's NOT sensory OR emotions...but in fact sensory can cause emotions OR emotions can be helped by sensory strategies. Sensory and emotions go hand-in-hand.

We all see that behavior is an issue across the board and it's increasing every year! The other school-wide programs that I've implemented for the past 10 years are motor labs and sensory paths. The entire school uses these strategies as outlets for their emotions, as part of their sensory diets, or as a way to improve motor planning and muscle strength. Our district has purchased the supplies for this for each one of the elementary schools in our district. The important thing to note is that it's available to EVERYONE...not just the OT/PT kids.  I confirmed just today that I've had a total of NINE screenings this entire school year, and only THREE were for sensory concerns. That is a personal accomplishment for me!

OTs can address a LOT of areas but addressing the concerns and managing the caseloads in schools are the challenges. It doesn't happen overnight. It takes "squeaky wheels" and passion to achieve this goal. It may even take several years of building trust and respect for your knowledge in this area. However, it can be done!! Please reach out if you need help.

I also teach the following courses that will help you advocate for this:

  1. NEW: LIVE: Just Right! Sensory Modulation Curriculum With Hands-On Interventions for Classrooms and Clinics LIVE, interactive webinar via Zoom: Wednesday, May 3, 3:00 PM – 6:00 PM Eastern (includes the digital version of the curriculum and the recording!)

  2. OT’s Role in Social and Emotional Learning (2-hour on-demand webinar) with Gwen and Kim

  3. Motor Labs, Sensory Paths, and School-Wide Movement Initiatives (2-hour on-demand webinar)

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