How Occupational Therapist in Schools Can Win Over Teachers.

How Occupational Therapist in Schools Can Win Over Teachers.

You’ve read the research.  

You follow the Facebook threads.

Everyone is talking about pushing into classrooms and collaborating with teachers.

You even agree that it’s the least restrictive environment and therefore not only Best Practice, but also the law.

Besides, you could actually learn the needs, expectations, interactions, and environmental variables in authentic settings AND real time.  

The problem is:

Teachers don’t want you in their rooms.

At least, that’s the message that they seem to convey either outright or nonverbally.  After all… They are BUSY!  

The demands on today’s teachers to cover increasing amounts of content, measure change regularly, intercept failing students, differentiate instruction, intersperse STEM activities across the curriculum, write lesson plans, record substantial progress reports, and oh yeah… ensure that accommodations and specially designed instruction legally mandated in the IEP are implemented seamlessly, is a time and a half job already.

So, when they see you standing at their doorway hoping to come in… it’s like the proverbial straw about to be added to the camel’s back.  I mean… Even Hercules had his limits.  The world he was currently shouldering… literally… was more than enough.  If another world showed up, he’d likely pass.  


Teachers do not want nor need more to do.  

They have plenty.

And if they perceive that THAT’s your plan, they’ll quickly say, ‘No Thank you.’

And they would be right to do so.  Because if their experience or yours has been to give them a To Do list that incorporates OT sensibilities and treatments, no wonder.  You’ll never win over teachers with that model.  In fact, it’s most important that you recognize that our job in schools is not to give teachers more to do.  Rather, it’s to help them do what they already do more efficiently.  

Which leads me to the first step in rectifying that perception.  

  • Appreciate your teachers.
  • Recognize the pressure they are under.
  • Commiserate with their ever-growing workload.

Let them know:

“I’m not a spy.”  

“I’m not here to judge.”

Hey… those fears exist, too.  Put them to rest right away.  The last thing teachers scrambling to learn new curriculum, manage classroom behaviors, present information coherently, stay current with their lesson plans, ready class for standardized testing, finish assignments before a scheduled fire drill, support the myriad of personalities including the child whose homelife is in tatters, or the one who’s shy, failing, explosive, not proficient in English, has learning differences, etc…. the last thing they need to feel is that you are sitting in judgement of them and may report back to the principal.

Better still… acknowledge their juggling act.  Because I would bet that they often feel like no one noticed.  Maybe their other colleagues do.  But probably not administrators or supervisors who are notorious for adding to their overfull and overflowing stack of spinning saucers.

Wow.  I am in awe of how you juggle all that you do.

And with that simple validation, you may have cracked the window.  Decreased the tension.  Affirmed respect.

  • Assure them, too.
  • I’m here to help.  
  • I want to help you and your students.  

How can I help?

To tell you the truth… when I’ve said that, I’m often holding their hands and looking them in the eyes.  I want them to feel the calming embrace of collegialism.  I want them to behold the look of genuine interest.  I want them to recognize the sincerity of my offer.  I want to reverse the autonomic nervous response of flight, disengagement, and resistance.  I am speaking to their hearts and listening for its response.

Wait… what’s that I hear?  Is it the sound of the door opening???  

Hmmm… I think so.

The skepticism is palpable.

Words are cheap.

The teacher appreciated the hand hug and kind words in the moment, but they still worry that the wolf has just entered the hen house.

How do you convince them otherwise?

This question comes up a lot when I’m touring the country on the lecture circuit and sharing Best Practices with OTs.

My response:  I bring them gifts.

It’s not like an outfit or anything.  By focusing on making their lives easier, their time more efficient, and their teaching more effective, you give them the gift of sanity.  Time.  Space.  Like a weight and some clutter has been removed from their heart and their head.  

And it doesn’t have to be big or expensive stuff either.  It can be little stuff.

Little stuff that little by little, becomes increasingly omnipresent and undeniably significant.

  1. Timesaving.
  2. Meaningful.
  3. Appreciated.

But what kind of stuff?  And is it stuff for the student?  Stuff for the classroom, or stuff for the teacher?  

Answer:  Stuff for everyone.

Here are some quickies sure to impress:

  • Offer to adapt a test.  Suppose you noticed the schedule calls for content testing of Science, Social Studies, Literature facts, etc?  Is it currently in essay form?  If it is not about assessing the quality of expository writing, could the same knowledge be measured through a multiple-choice exam?  Perhaps you could ‘borrow’ the template the teacher created and streamline its appearance.  Would indentation of the multiple choice, word bank, diagrams, etc, make it easier to read?  Could you reduce the amount of information on the page or the problem?
  • Offer to modify an assignment.  Is there a Daily Edit, Book Report, Valentine’s Day poem, Martin Luther King Day composition or other type of writing task in the child’s future?  Could you rewrite the prompt on adapted paper?  Provide the same prompt(s) on multiple grade-level papers so kids could select the paper on which they feel they could do their best printing.
  • Provide reams of adapted paper at different grade levels and orientations.  Vertical and horizontal lined sheets of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade paper.  Provide a set of storing trays too so the paper is clearly separated.  Suggest to the teacher that she allow the kids to select which paper would work best for them.  It’s amazing how many times the kids pick the one I would have chosen for them.
  • Create visually appealing worksheets.  Linear flow and multiple sheets versus cramming everything onto one page.  If existing worksheets or templates have big blank boxes into which students are expected to write, could you insert lines?  But remember, single lines alone will not provide enough guidance.  Kids need the top, middle and dotted lines.  Real OT Solutions sells lined labels in 3 different grade levels.  Legi-liner is another good option.
  • Humbly ask if the teacher would consider some interior design tweaks.  Then draw a diagram of how you could create more intimate learning environments, like cordoning off areas of the room with bookshelves, creating safe or quiet corners by suspending cotton sheets/curtains from the drop ceiling, or selectively using lighting, carpet remnants, tables or other desk arrangements.  Feng shui is a real thing.  The art of matching the environment to the mood.  And then… If she likes it, do it.  
  • Angle desks.  Rather than slant boards, I like to elevate the 2 front legs of a desk a notch or two.  Takes some manpower and time, but that’s the only cost.  Way cheaper than buying slant boards and way better than using 3-ringed binders.  The ideal reading/writing angle is 20o, roughly equivalent to raising the front legs 2 notches.  The problem may be that stuff falls out.  If so, either fabricate a ‘drawer’ using the lid of a copy paper box.  Or… if there is no horizontal bar between the two front legs, turn the desk around.  This way… stuff slides back inside.  The student would sit on the side closest to the pencil trough.  Ask the child how they like it.  They do!!  And so will the kids next to him and the ones across the room, and everyone else, too.  Of course, you can’t do this for just your student.  You may end up adapting everyone’s desk!
  • Supply alternative seats or cushions.  Elevate the back 2 legs of a chair to put the hips into anterior pelvic tilt.  Or issue sitting discs to provide movement and sensory input.  Ball chairs are nice, but you need a base.  Otherwise, kids are constantly chasing their chairs across the room.  Don’t give teachers reasons to resent having invited you in.
  • Modify or mask the ambient noise.  Note outside and inside noise.  Close windows or doors.  Relocate the student away from a noise radiator, bathroom, hallway or street traffic. 
  • Adjust the lighting.  Overhead fluorescent lighting has a perceptible buzz and is uncomfortable harsh.  If a classroom has natural light, consider not turning on the overhead lighting at all.  Or just illuminate one side, the back of the room, a single light, etc.  It takes some getting used to, but it will eventually be more comfortable.  Additionally, consider bringing in incandescent lighting like lamps.
  • Design sensory appealing learning centers and safe corners.  Safe corners give kids an in-class opportunity to regroup.  It’s what we do when we hide in the bathroom or car longer than necessary.  Kids whose ‘heads are full’ need place to regroup and self-regulate, too.  Knowing they need to ‘take five’ is a sign they are tuned into their interoceptive needs.  Encourage them to self-advocate and for teachers to validate.  Then fill your safe corners with lava lamps, weighted blankets, water features, perpetual motion accessories, headphones, acoustic musical recordings, small fidgets, cotton sheets, etc.  Supply a timer.  Ten to fifteen minutes maximum.  Enough to begin breathing calmly again.  Also supply a Do Not Disturb sign.  It’s a show of respect.  

Of course, not all these options should be implemented at once.  Try one at a time.  But your teachers will view your time and contribution to their running of the class as constructive and positive.  

Focusing on teacher’s needs gives you a foot in the door.  

Maybe even a seat in the room.  

At the same time, tune into the class as a whole.  Macro-therapy, if you will.  And while the trickle-down effect is a lovely economics theory that may not actually inspire financial (and read that as ‘personal’) growth across the board, it does in the world of education.  

This is big picture stuff.  Stuff that builds foundations, peer mentors, teacher collaboration, and professional respect.  

It’s a holistic approach… no pun intended.  

Don’t worry.  You’ll get to the kids, too.  But starting with the teachers and their classroom paves the way for some of the more ‘invasive’ suggestions that follow.  Additionally, you will be building relationships that transcend time and generalize across enrollment.  Besides… your fly on the wall outpost allows you the vantage point to identify peer mentors.  Best practice!!

So… spend time taking it all in.  Observe everything.  Stuff like: 

The classroom layout.  

Where are the important visuals?  On the back wall?  Obscured by a plant?   Does the student have to turn around to see them?  Is there so much other visual stimulations on the wall that this poster/chart/diagram gets lost?  If visual figure-ground issues exist, that important piece of educational piece of wall coverage will be relegated to mere decoration.

What is the desk arrangement like?  Cooperative groups of 4-5?  Rows?  Facing the front or side walls?  Horseshoe?  Who’s sitting next to whom and what’s within their line of sight?  Is it the teacher and the front board?  Or is the cubbies and a cluster of nattering classmates? 

Where are the doors and windows relative to ‘center stage?’  Both have the potential to be distracting, especially for our students.  

Flow of traffic.

Is it rush hour all day?  Has independent work become the norm such that kids are constantly in motion, moving from one center/learning corner/activity to the next?  This might feel exhilarating for the child who thrives on diversity, but for the ones who need consistency and calm, it could feel frenetic and unsettling.

Do kids ‘brush’ up next to each other when passing another’s desk?  How close are the desks to one another?  Is there no reasonable way to pass another student without bumping their space?  Factor in bookbags and coats.  Is your tactually hyper-response child essentially seated in what could lovingly be called a colonial alleyway when what they really need is the Champs Elysée? 

Where are all the things they might need?  The trashcan?  The cubby?  Writing paper?  The bathroom?  And what is their route to get there?  Again… this goes to the sights, sounds, and tactile sensations experienced en route to one’s destination times thirty… or how ever many kids are in the room.

Peer interactions.

Bullies?  Old souls?  Future peacemakers?  Fellow unicorns or shy albatross?  Who are they?  Which ones should be seated furthest away and which ones should be in direct proximity?  Any natural partnerships emerging?

What are the dynamics of the group?  Is it a loud bunch?  Physically aggressive?  Gentle quiet solitary kids?  It’s often a mixture, but different constellations of students brings a new dynamic to the culture of that academic year.

Behavior management and crowd control

What is the teacher’s teaching style?  Traditional, by the book and standing in front?  Or wandering and everywhere?  Surprise!

What is the teacher’s energy level?  Quiet speakers may invite children to lean in.  Animated teachers may engage students.  Either has positive and negative by-products.  Is this a good teacher-student match?

Does the teacher modify her teaching style depending on the student’s learning needs?  How so?

What is the teachers Go To plan for disruptive/explosive/demanding kids?  Please don’t say stickers or clothespins.  Greg Santucci may be reading this!!  He’s got reams of evidence on the counter-productiveness of visible/tangible reinforcement schedules.  More than that… such behavioral approaches to emotional needs can have damaging long-term consequences.  

What enrichment opportunities are available?  What, where and how does the teacher productively occupy those kids who complete work early and easily.  If none, there is a chance that conversations and behaviors could distract those students still working.  

How does the teacher engage the class or call their attention?  Small voice?  Rain stick?  Drum?  Do they have a preferred way of eliciting participation?  What options do they use to promote total participation?

I once had a therapist share that she does Sensory Profiles on all her teachers.  Imagine!!  Not formally, of course.  And certainly with no concomitant formal write-up.  But we are an intuitive group.  We can quickly get a read on a teacher’s needs, talents, mission, style and more.  When you actively engage in an immersive experience, ideas for improvements will present themselves.  Be open-minded and sensorially attuned.  Leave any preconceived ideas or plans outside the door.  

Stop being so territorial.

In one of my presentations, I show a cartoon of 3 normally inanimate objects but as living characters.  Each has eyes, noses, a mouth and arms.  One is a rock, another is paper and the third… you guessed it… scissors!  

Somehow, they assembled together and are trying to figure out who should make the first move.  

The caption read: “Well, this is awkward.”


  1. What comes first?
  2. Who’s up next?  
  3. Anybody the clear leader… or winner?
  4. And what are the rules?

It’s kind of like that when you find yourself sitting in a classroom.  What are you supposed to do?  What comes first, second, etc.?  What takes precedence?  Is it your IEP goal or the teacher’s lesson plans?  Is it possible that the lesson being taught is important enough that it SHOULD take precedence?  More so, it does not appear that your student is adequately participating or benefiting from the lesson.

Now what?  Who wins?  Your agenda or that of your teacher?  How about the needs of your student?

And yes, this may be your time, but your student/class/school is simultaneously scheduled for or participating in:

  • A Fieldtrip
  • Assembly
  • Speech
  • A fire drill
  • A surprise guest
  • A birthday party

Or suppose the kids are in class but the lesson you’ve joined is not a free write, daily edit, or other paper/pencil task.  Rather, your student is:

  1. Researching on the internet
  2. Doing an art project with a partner
  3. Taking a test
  4. Reading in a group literacy lesson
  5. Solving math problems
  6. Designing a science experiment
  7. Studying a social studies assignment 
  8. Some of the above
  9. All of the above
  10. Something really close
  11. Unavailable

Frustrating, I know.  You asked the teacher for a good time to join her class and she indicated the time you’re in.  And in your inimitable wisdom, you chose this date and time because the class was supposed to be engaged in a writing or fine motor activity.  In other words, you were planning around an activity that would support the IEP goals you wrote for that child.  

And now it’s all gone horribly wrong!!

So much for trying to integrate within the classroom and pursue Best Practices.  Or is it?

Let’s think about this a bit more.

What is the purpose of school-based OT?  What is the unique value Occupational Therapists bring to a school setting and the child’s life that warrant our services and expertise?  Is it not about ensuring full and meaningful participation?  

Well, now that you put it that way…

Revisit your own goals.  Is it possible to reword them so they are more global and related to promoting successful participation in all aspects of the child’s educational program?  Or are they specifically related to handwriting or other manifestation of motor skills?  Either way, you may want to initiate an IEP update so you can accurately record the distinct value and perspective OT services will provide.  

Yeah, yeah, yeah.   Sounds like a can of worms you don’t want to reopen.  The first IEP meeting was long enough.  And perhaps it’s not realistic now anyway.  Just know that going forward, you’ll want to revise how you write IEP goals.  Even to the point of not writing them at all but instead collaborating with teachers in their goals.  

Uh-oh…. Did I just give away the topic of the next blog???  But if I already tipped my hand, then let me share too that OTs across the country have stopped writing goals and are doing just that.  More later!!

So OK then… you are stuck for the time being with goals for which you cannot in this moment, address.  What CAN you do??

How can you feel like a professional in the classroom and not just another set of hands?

Be a fly on the wall.  Observe everything.  After all, everything is related to participation.  Participation is not just writing…. Although it can be.  It is also social, emotional, sensory, situational and personal.  That said… your treatment will be informed by your observations of:

  • Your student amongst his peers
  • The interactions of the classmates with each other, and with your student
  • Who the helper students are.  The ones who could be peer mentors.
  • The ones to avoid.  Oil and water.  Happens.  Make sure they are not seated near each other
  • The location of the teaching references.  Is your student facing forward, or are they in a cooperative desk arrangement, facing a back wall?
  • Environmental stimulation.  The sounds of the heating/air conditioning system.  Is it so loud and close by as to drown out the teacher?  Are the overhead fluorescent lights harsh, buzzing and uncomfortable? 
  • The activity itself.  Is it a doing activity?  Is it multi-sensory?  Is it success-insured…. Or with a few tweaks, could be?
  • What is the teacher’s verbal and non-verbal messaging during this independent work?  Is she noticing the dynamics or catching up on her own paperwork?  Are their prompts short and paused so the student has time to process them?  Or is she a rapid speaker, leaving your student struggling to begin?

And that’s just for starters…

Forget the notion of feeling like a passive spectator.  You are an active problem-solver.  As you sit there, you will notice dozens of ways the class could be more sensorially calming and your student more successful engaged.  

Is the teacher still looking at your askance?  Wondering why you haven’t removed a student or two from the room?  Requesting errangs or coverage or anything other than professional support?  

How can you establish boundaries?  Up next!!

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