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With The Help Of An OT

3 Areas of Focus for Middle Schoolers

At Wolf, an Occupational Therapist is a critical member of our teams – working alongside the Special Educator and Speech and Language Pathologist in every classroom. For today’s blog, we welcomed Wolf’s own Nicole Braga-O’Neill to share her insights as an Occupational Therapist with Middle School students. Read on to discover the three key areas Occupational Therapists work on with our middle school students!

If you search “pediatric Occupational Therapy (OT)” on Pinterest or Youtube, you usually will come across fun crafts or creative movement-based activities for toddlers and young children.  But what is less well-known or less apparent on the internet is occupational therapy’s role with middle and high school students.  

Three words come to mind when speaking of this population regarding occupational therapy: autonomy, self-awareness, and advocacy.  The emphasis in middle school is to build upon the foundational skills developed in elementary school and create more independence in areas such as self-regulation, sensory processing, and fine and visual-motor skills.


Autonomy comes into play when developing a particular skill or skill set with support, and whether or not the student can meet the goal set for them.  If the student is able to accomplish the established goal or obtain the particular skill, OT helps them to become more independent in using that skill throughout various settings, called generalization.  For example, if a student has been working on hand strength and endurance to be able to color for a longer period of time, they can then translate this skill to support their ability to write longer responses during their Literacy block.  If the student continues to struggle with a skill that impedes their overall performance, we would then look at alternate ways for them to approach certain tasks to help them to be as independent as possible throughout their school day, called modifying or grading.  An example of this may be using speech-to-text on their Chromebooks if they are having difficulty keeping up with handwriting in the classroom.    

Through Occupational Therapy students develop autonomy by generalizing strengths and making modifications to support areas of weakness, which will create a middle school student who is more confident in their abilities.  This will allow them to enter into their next setting confident in their toolkit of strategies to assist them in achieving academic success.  


Self-awareness is also very important for middle school students because so much is changing within them and around them that it can be difficult to navigate all the “newness.”  Self-regulation techniques are explicitly taught in Occupational Therapy, and sensory diets are developed by occupational therapists with student input and feedback to enhance the student’s awareness of their body’s needs, which will allow them to access their environment.  In elementary school, co-regulation is highlighted, and the students are presented with language around what they are feeling.  A curriculum may be present to provide visuals to match this language (i.e., Feeling Buddies®, or the Alert Program), and they are introduced to strategies to assist in regulation.  By the time those students get to middle school, the goal is to start to increase their internal awareness, also called interoception, which will allow them to be less reliant on others for co-regulation, and more independent with self-regulation.  Using a self-regulation curriculum (i.e., Zones of Regulation®) in middle school can provide a deeper look into the student’s individual needs and how they can use learned strategies across multiple settings.


Finally, developing advocacy skills for middle school students is crucial, but especially for our students at Wolf.  Once a student has developed self-awareness, created a toolkit of strategies, and learned what works best for them to regulate their body, OT’s want them to be able to ask for what they need when they need it.  For example, when a new school year starts and there is a student who benefits from a standing desk to increase their focus during academics, we want them to feel confident to speak up to the new teacher/staff and advocate for themselves to get their needs met in this new setting/classroom.  

One unique part of Wolf is that we celebrate everyone having their own individual plan, and emphasize that strategies that work for one student may not work for their neighbor, and that is what’s expected! For our middle school students, in particular, our goal is to help each student develop confidence in understanding their own needs and plan, and when they move on from Wolf into future endeavors, that they have the strength and ability to advocate and determine how to have their needs met in each new setting.  Occupational Therapists working with middle school students are an integral part of introducing, developing, and polishing each of these skills (and many, many more!) in order to send our students out into their community as strong advocates, and self-aware, confident autonomous individuals.  

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