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15 Vital Ways OT Helps Preschoolers With Cerebral Palsy

boy toddler crying and screaming

If your preschooler has cerebral palsy (CP), you’re probably familiar with physical therapy (PT) as part of their early intervention (EI) program. However, as your child begins to age out of early intervention (about age two and a half), you and your doctor will want to consider adding occupational therapy (OT) to your child’s treatment plan.

What Is OT in children with CP?

“Occupational” therapy is a misleading name. For children, it’s not about a traditional occupation or “job.” Instead, every child has a different “job” to do in each stay of their childhood:

  • OT for Preschoolers with CP: involves play, learning, and self-care skills. Increases strength, physical abilities, and cognitive (thinking) skills, allowing greater independence and preparing your child for elementary school success.
  • OT for School-Age Children with CP: growth in self-care skills, play, and learning to help your child improve social and school success. 
  • OT for Teenagers with CP: continued physical and cognitive growth toward independence, high school success, and preparation for young adult life.

15 Benefits of Occupational Therapy for Preschoolers with CP

This article focuses on 15 ways that OT helps preschoolers with cerebral palsy. It may look like “playing,” but here’s what’s happening during occupational therapy.

1. OT can help your preschooler with CP to develop motor planning skills.

Motor planning is about using your body to coordinate activities without thinking about it.

For instance, driving a car may automatically turn on a directional signal, take your foot off the accelerator, and turn the steering wheel. Yet you don’t consciously think about each step as you do it. This is motor planning.

In the same way, preschoolers need to be able to coordinate their body movements—without having to think about it.

For children with CP, motor planning is challenging.

An occupational therapist can teach your child how to coordinate their motor skills through toys and play. For example, your child may learn activities, such as how to:

  • Grasp a crayon.
  • Release their grasp on a colored marker.
  • Turn on a toy with flashing lights.

2. OT can help your preschooler with CP to coordinate both sides of their body.

Coordinating the left and right sides of the body is also a demanding skill for children with CP.

Examples of activities that require coordination of both sides of the body include:

  • Crawling or walking.
  • Coordinating each leg to climb a short toy slide.
  • Switching an action figure from one hand to another.

3. OT teaches children how to do activities that cross from one side of the body to the other.

During an OT session, your preschooler may practice crossing the right arm or leg to the left side of the body. Or the left arm or leg to the right side of the body. This is called “crossing” the midline.

Activities that cross the midline require the left and right sides of our brains to work in partnership. As a result, our movements appear smoother, more fluid, and more controlled.

Daily activities that require crossing the midline include:

  • Putting on shoes or socks.
  • Writing or cutting.
  • Clapping games.
  • Tracing a figure eight.
  • Sweeping

OT helps preschoolers practice these movements while they are having fun “playing.”

4. OT helps your preschoolers with CP advance their fine motor skills.

Fine motor skills are essential for your child’s daily activities. For example, preschoolers need these skills to:

  • Pull their clothes on or off.
  • Eat with a spoon or fork.
  • Pinch the thumb and index finger to pick up small objects.
  • Prepare for printing letters in school.

Most importantly, in our digital world, pointing and clicking is not only a fine motor skill but also a crucial life skill.

5. OT can help your child with CP become more independent.

For preschoolers with CP, OT may help your child learn how to:

  • Pull clothes on or off.
  • Wash themselves during bathing.
  • Brush their teeth.
  • Comb or brush their hair.
  • Get in and out of a car from a chair.
  • Transfer from a chair to the bed.
  • Feed themselves.

6. OT can help build your child’s confidence.

As your child becomes more independent, they may feel a greater sense of accomplishment and mastery. This can boost your child’s feelings of self-worth and self-confidence.

7. An occupational therapist can join forces with your child’s speech therapist to enhance communication skills.

Occupational therapists often team up with speech therapists to improve communication.

  • For example, if a speech therapist proposes using a communications board, the occupational therapist may work on pointing skills or “I want” games.
  • Similarly, a speech or occupational therapist may recommend using adaptive eating utensils. Therefore, the child may eat during an OT session to practice using an adapted spoon or form.
  • Speech and social skills also involve taking turns. Therefore, during “play” therapy, the occupational therapist and your preschooler may practice taking turns.

8. OT may minimize temper tantrums in children with CP.

Understandably, some children with CP can become frustrated. For example, they may be irritated because they cannot communicate their needs. Or they become frustrated that they can’t keep up with their peers or siblings. Likewise, being unable to make their bodies do what their brain is willing them to do is aggravating.

As a result, your child may throw preschool temper tantrums. (Of course, as with any toddler, these outbursts may equally depend on your child’s natural temperament.)

Becoming more independent and communicating or meeting one’s needs can be gratifying for your preschooler—and even may stave off tantrums.

9. OT helps children with CP with visual motor skills.

This means OT can help your child with eye-hand coordination. These skills help prepare children to read, draw, and write in school. Therapy activities might include:

  • Stacking blocks.
  • Catching a ball.
  • Completing a maze.
  • Stringing large beads.

10. OT helps children with CP with visual perception skills.

Visual perception is the ability to see, interpret, and act on what we see.

For instance, this type of perception includes knowing that two shapes or colors are different or the same. OT can help your child develop these skills through matching games, puzzles, hidden picture games, dot-to-dot worksheets, and other activities.

11.  Occupational therapists find creative ways to help your child complete everyday activities.

Creative uses of everyday items can be used to help your child with CP. Moreover, occupational therapists are experts in this area.

To that end, equipment, tools, or toys can be modified to help your child learn various skills.

Adapting a light-up toy’s on-off switch can make activating it easier, for example. Then, the therapist can gradually increase the skill needed to start the toy. And eventually, the adaptation may not be necessary.

Other adaptions include various size grips on pencils, scissors, or eating utensils. Respectively, these may help your preschooler draw, cut, or eat.

Likewise, zipper pulls may allow your child to dress themselves.

Various eating and positioning equipment are also available. They can help make your child more comfortable and more able to tolerate daily activities, such as sitting still.

A bath chair is an example of one such piece of equipment. It can keep your child safe and save your aching back.

12.  Developing gross motor skills and strength is also essential in OT for children with CP.

Gross motor skills are activities that require large muscle groups. Gross motor activities, then, include activities such as sitting, crawling, rolling over, jumping, and climbing stairs. A physical therapist (PT) and an OT often focus on similar muscle groups.

However, the goals or outcomes of their therapy sessions may be different.

For example, a PT may work on core strength using exercises, while an OT may zero in on core strength so the child can pull clothes on.

During OT, play may involve having your child look at picture books while on their tummies, crawling on a bumpy surface, or playing a game while sitting on a therapy ball.

13.  Preschoolers with CP may also work on sensory integration during PT.

Sensory integration means the child can receive, register, interpret, and respond to information from the five senses in a coordinated way.

Like other preschoolers, children with CP may have sensory issues. This can sometimes result in a sensory meltdown.

However, through play, an occupational therapist can help your child to tolerate different textures or sounds gradually. Some activities associated with sensory integration therapy may include:

  • Finger painting.
  • Playing with homemade play dough.
  • Sandbox play.
  • Playing with fidgets.
  • Tracing shapes in shaving cream.
  • Humming on a kazoo.
  • Learning to blow a whistle.
  • Clapping games.
  • Reciting rhymes or repetitive patterns.

14.  OT prepares your preschooler for their next stage in life, their next occupation:  kindergarten.

As a result of OT, then, your preschooler with CP can develop myriad skills:

  • Motor planning
  • Coordinating both sides of the body
  • Activities that cross the midline
  • Fine motor skills
  • Independence
  • Confidence
  • Speech and communication
  • Self-control
  • Visual-motor skills
  • Visual perception skills
  • Motor strength and gross motor skills
  • Sensory integration

Consequently, they can improve their readiness for kindergarten.

15. Finally, OT can help children with CP by giving their parents a break.

Arguably, the toughest job you’ll ever love is not the Peace Corps. It’s parenting.

Parenting successfully is always taxing. And when you love and care for a child with CP, you face additional demands on your resources, such as time, patience, and stamina.

OT helps your child by helping you extend those resources.

Your preschooler’s greater independence means fewer demands on your patience, time, and stamina. Moreover, you’ll find joy in watching your child become more self-sufficient and improve the quality of their life.

All these benefits can help reduce your stress and enhance not only your child’s quality of life but also yours.

As a bonus, you’ll find your occupational therapist to be as invested in your child’s success as you are.

Learn why Author and Infinity and Beyond Pediatric Therapy Owner Stephanie Vogler is incredibly passionate about working with children with CP.

Learn why Author and Infinity and Beyond Pediatric Therapy Owner Stephanie Vogler is incredibly passionate about working with children with CP.

Our Treatment Approach

We are one of just a handful of Illinois clinics that integrates a fresh treatment approach called MNRI®. This groundbreaking method integrates physical, emotional, and social skills with your child’s unique neurological framework. As a result of MNRI®, we have seen children’s progress take off. We have discovered that MNRI® may boost your child to greater, more global, sustained, and long-lasting success.

About Stephanie

Stephanie Vogler smiling and holding her daughter

Stephanie Vogler, OTR/L, C/NDT, MNRI® Core Specialist, is the owner and founder of Infinity and Beyond Pediatric Therapy. Learn more about Stephanie.

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Brittany Frankel

Brittany Frankel graduated from Elmhurst University with her Master of Occupational Therapy and holds a Bachelor of Social Work from Northeastern Illinois University. Brittany is passionate about working with children and developing strong relationships with their families to ensure collaboration to work towards the client and family-oriented goals. She has experience working with children with difficulties in a variety of areas but is especially passionate about working with children with sensory and emotional regulation and executive functioning challenges. Brittany has taken continuing education courses in areas including Masgutova Neurosensorimotor Reflex Integration (MNRI), interoception, executive dysfunction, and sensory processing. Brittany works under the belief that “kids do well if they can,” a quote from Dr. Ross Greene, and that a large piece of intervention is working to uncover the underlying deficits leading to functional difficulties. When not working, Brittany’s favorite hobbies include horseback riding, spending time with her cat and dog, reading, and playing with her nieces and nephew.