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Pediatric Occupational Therapy Guest Blog – The Lost Child: Strategies for the Classroom

By: Loren Shlaes, OTR
Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique
NB: This is part TWO of a two part article. Part one may be found HERE
The Lost Child: Strategies for the Classroom
In my last post, I talked about the child who is lost in school. He has failed to internalize the expectations of the classroom, lacks sufficient internal structure to be able to work independently, and requires constant adult direction and supervision to be able to do what is expected of him.
The rule of thumb here: as soon as we recognize that a child has not developed the internal structure required to succeed in his environment, we should provide it for him until he does develop it. This means writing things down for him, making things as predictable as possible to that he can internalize routine through repetition, and giving gentle verbal reminders when necessary. A very young child who cannot read can be given pictures to remind him of what his day will be like and what needs to be done.
A great strategy for any preschool or kindergarten classroom is for the teachers to have a whole repertoire of transitional songs to teach the children and sing them daily. As soon as the children start singing, expectations click into place and they know what’s going to happen and what to do. I work with a severely autistic child who is so responsive to the song I use to greet him that he starts to transition instantly and is ready to come with me as soon as he hears me sing the first few words. His siblings, who are often present when I’m working with him, have noticed how effective this is and have started singing to him as well. He is almost completely non verbal, but he can sing all of our songs word for word!
A child who needs direction to stay on task and follow the classroom routine can be paired with a buddy who enjoys helping him and can keep him on track. Depending on the child’s needs, this can include watching out for him on the playground or in gym class, helping the child transition between activities by teaming up together to clean up or to fetch his lunch and coat, lining up together for lunch or recess, and sitting next to him during class so that if the child has any questions about how to proceed, he has someone who can direct him. For an older child, his buddy can help him by making sure that he writes down his assignments and has his homework. If the child is slow copying from the board, his buddy can make sure he’s got everything down, or allow him to copy assignments from his notebook.
For an older child who can read, a small card taped in a discreet place, like the inside cover of a notebook, can be helpful for him to refer to for information about the day’s schedule, the location of his classes, etc. The teacher should avoid sharing information in long strings of verbal instruction, and either write things down on the board or keep verbal directions short so they can be digested before the next round of instruction begins. The child should work with his speech therapist, OT, or learning specialist on developing strategies to help him stay on task, such as writing notes to himself, developing mneumonic devices, and remembering to refer to his written schedule.
A quick email from the teacher or a note home about what is expected {permission slips, homework, etc.} can help as well. Or the child can have a standing appointment at the end of the day with the teacher to quickly review the evening’s assignments before leaving the classroom.
Children who don’t have the ability to be mentally flexible due to their sensory issues will have a hard time coping with changes in the classroom routine. The adults need to take this into consideration and help them get ready by letting them know what’s coming up and what to expect. For instance, a scheduled field trip which other children would view as a welcome break from routine can fill a child with sensory issues with anxiety. He doesn’t know what to expect, and doesn’t know whether this will be something fun to look forward to or something that will cause him to have to face a series of aversive situations, like crowded museums, loud noises, and flashing lights. Telling the child as much as possible about what to expect will help him rehearse his responses.
One thing I observe about the kids I treat is that this lack of internal structure extends to their ability to organize work on the paper. I really don’t like those marbleized cover composition books, especially for very young children. It’s too hard to keep written work neat in them. I much prefer Handwriting Without Tears double lined and journals. The double lines are so effective for helping the children keep their letters sized and placed correctly, which trains their hands to do this automatically over time. If a child is bringing home work sheets that are very busy visually and refusing to work on them, or the work he produces is disorganized, chances are that all that visual clutter is too confusing. Would it be possible to talk to the teacher about providing worksheets with cleaner, simpler graphics?
{Speaking of which, you would be amazed at how much neater a child’s writing can become when working in that double lined paper. What can you do about getting a sample into your child’s classroom so that the teacher can see it?}
The more movement that is built into the lesson plan,the better. The best learning takes place when it involves more than one sense, since it uses different parts of the brain and forms more connections. Repetition through muscle memory helps drive learning into the deepest parts of of the brain, where they become automatic in nature. When doing work that involves memorization, such as spelling or multiplication tables, make a game out of it that involves hand clapping or accompanying movements. When the child is required to problem solve or to think something through before writing it down, it’s best to allow the child to move while he does it.
Loren Shlaes Registered Occupational Therapist Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique New York, New York
Featured Author: Loren Shlaes, OTR
Many thanks to Loren Shlaes for providing us with this article for our newsletter and website.
Loren Shlaes is a pediatric occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration and school related issues, particularly handwriting. She lives and practices in Manhattan. She blogs at

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