Top Therapist Tools for Back To School


Happy New Schoolyear! Are you excited for school to start up again?

My son is starting First Grade this coming Monday, but my district started back up on August 6th. So, I’ve had a few weeks already to get situated, and hopefully I can give you some ideas on getting ready for heading back to school.

This is going to be a blog series, so I’ll have several posts on the back to school topic. First up, the top therapist tools you need to be prepared for this coming schoolyear.

Top 3 Therapist Tools for Back To School

And the results of my very unofficial poll are in. Here are the top three tools you need to start off your schoolyear.

1. A calendar or planner that works for you

Emphasis on the phrase “that works for you”. The previous schoolyear, I started with a regular (but pretty) planner, but abandoned it after a few months. It was easier for me to keep up with an electronic calendar, since the majority of my IEPs were scheduled via Outlook. I tried a Savor Daily Action Planner  last schoolyear, and loved it the first month. It had a weekly plan, and a daily to-do list and schedule, and really worked for me initially. Except that it was only for a month at a time, so I had to use my electronic calendar to input upcoming IEPs. Plus I realized that it would quickly become too expensive. I also tried the planner from MomAgenda. I liked it initially, but ended up abandoning it midway through the schoolyear. I think because it was a bit bulky, I would rather leave it behind than bring it with me.

This year I am starting out with the Bullet Journal system, since I love that it is so flexible! Basically it is a notebook and a pen, so it can be small and flexible, and I can adapt it as I go. You can customize the layout any way you want, adapted to the way I think. I’ve started a custom weekly spread that includes To Do lists for each school I am at. I still use my Outlook calendar for IEPs and treatments, but I need a place that ties in my to-do lists with my schedule, since I will be at different schools on different days. We’ll see how this spread works out for me, but if it doesn’t it is easy to change it to fit my needs as I figure those out. No need for perfection, just turn the page and change your mind!

2. A binder/file system

Every school-based OT needs a binder, or at least some sort of system to organize all their documents. I use my binder to keep track of all my schools. I have tabs for each school, and behind each tab I keep a copy of the following documents:

  • Bell schedule
  • School map
  • Staff roster/directory – includes room numbers/extension
  • Class schedules
  • Assessment plans & evaluation protocols & work samples — I keep these all together per student in a heavy-duty page protector. I transfer them into a folder once the IEP has been completed.

My colleague has a tab per student, and keeps work samples and treatment notes behind each tab. My husband (also a pediatric OT) also keeps his calendar in his binder, so some of his dividers are the months of the year. It just depends on what works best for you!

3. A rolling bag

A couple of years ago, I did not have a rolling bag, and my shoulder deeply regretted it. I should know better, I’m an OT, right? Last year, I used an old scrapbooking rolling tote (love the compartments) until the handle broke and gave way. I definitely needed  an even bigger one to cart around all my stuff. My colleague uses one of those rolling crates, but it is harder to bring it up and down stairs.  Another colleague uses a rolling sewing machine bag from a craft store. Currently, I am using a scrapbook rolling tote from Hobby Lobby, and it is working out great so far. I also really love this scrapbook rolling tote, it looks like it was built for a school-based OT!


So those are the basics that I would recommend you have when you start out the new schoolyear. What tools are essentials for you?


*Disclosure: Affiliate links used where possible. 

What Legoland Taught Me About the Importance of Play


This summer, we went on a 5-day vacation to Legoland. I noticed that unlike the Happiest Place on Earth (Disneyland) Legoland has a lot of playgrounds for free play. Coming into the park, there’s the Lego Duplo playground, Heartland Stables, Pharaoh’s Revenge, Pirate Hideaways, and more. This doesn’t even count the play areas that are part of the lines for the rides. It’s pretty ingenious actually, the kids can go and build with Legos while their parents wait in line for the ride, and then when their turn comes up they can rejoin their parents and go on the ride. As a whole Legoland is much more play oriented than most other theme parks.

Why is that? Probably because Lego originated in Denmark, where there is a high cultural value placed on play. The word Lego actually comes from “leg godt” meaning “play well” in Danish. And this importance placed on play is probably just one of the many factors why Denmark also holds the distinction of being one of the Happiest Countries on Earth.

As an observer at Legoland, it was interesting to see how the exact opposite is taking place in American culture. While we sat back and took a break as our kids ran around together on one of the playgrounds, other parents were setting limits. “You can stay here for only five minutes and then we need to move on.” Another parent said, “We didn’t come all the way here for you to play on a playground!”  I sadly watched as the kids’ eyes would light up when they saw the cool playground, then their faces fell as they were told that they couldn’t play.

As OTs, we know the importance of play. Or do we really? How often do we actually evaluate the play skills of our clients? Granted, it would probably be hard to get a play goal funded through insurance, but we can at least offer suggestions to parents. Think about those kids with CP who have motor difficulties that impede their play. Or the kids with autism that only do repetitive stereotyped play. Even in school-based therapy, I may not be able to evaluate play per se, but I can still look at participation during recess. So as an OT, how do you advocate for play, whether in your practice or in our society as a whole?

Free Printable Speedometer for Self-Regulation

Free Printable - Self-Regulation Speedometer

Here it is, as promised! I am sharing a free printable to make it quick and easy to make a self-regulation speedometer. This is one of my favorite activities in the Alert Program. The kids just seem to instinctively grasp the concept quickly with this visual.

This speedometer is kind of a mash-up between the Alert Program’s engine speedometer using the colors of the Zones of Regulation. I didn’t put a label on the areas so you could choose what terminology you preferred to use and label it accordingly. One thing I like about this one is that the colors are shown on a spectrum, so you could use this in conversation with your older kiddos about being “in between” zones or being in two zones at once.


I put two speedometers on the printable so you could assemble one for yourself while your student assembles one too. This helps me demonstrate my own engine level or zone (whichever you prefer) while teaching my kiddo about his own. I love to send the speedometer home with my kiddo, and I usually give mine to the parents or teacher.

Free Printable – Self-Regulation Speedometer


Download here


Thanks to my sister for the base of this template! (Did I mention my sister is a pediatric OT, too? I guess it runs in the family.)

Self Regulation and Occupational Therapy

Self Regulation

I’ve been thinking about self-regulation ever since I saw the Inside Out movie. I feel that in the last few years, this area has really taken off and as OT’s we have quickly embraced this area and made it our own. It’s great that it’s even starting to seep into the mainstream, like the movie Inside Out, and the Zones of Regulation being mentioned on The View. Or maybe it’s just my perception that it is new and taking off, since OT’s have been doing this since before the Alert Program was published in 1996.

Self-regulation is a natural area for us OT’s to address. It fits squarely into the occupation of social participation, and makes a great fit for us since we are using part of our (often neglected) mental health background.

The Alert Program was the pioneer program in this area, and we naturally gravitated towards it with the focus on using a cognitive approach to sensory modulation. I’ve always felt that there was a missing piece though. Although using the sensory strategies were often helpful, sometimes there was a need for something more. So when I first learned about the Zones of Regulation, I was excited about it. I was able to attend one of the workshops last schoolyear, and I loved it and thought it really filled a need to include emotional self-regulation into the equation.

Another OT resource that I thought was interesting was a book on Self-Regulation Interventions & Strategies. Has anyone read this book and can give us some feedback?

But are these approaches evidence-based?

Yes they are! The Alert Program already has quite a bit of research on it since it has been around much longer. It’s not a huge, double-blind RCT, but then again, that isn’t really realistic considering the program. The Zones of Regulation website doesn’t have many articles specifically on its effectiveness as an intervention, but it is “practice based on evidence” since it is based on research. (Sidenote: Is it nerdy of me to be excited that Leah Kuypers is sharing the lit review she did for the Zones on her website?) I’m sure the studies on the use of the Zones will be forthcoming in the years to come.

Next week, I’m going to be sharing a free printable for a Zones-friendly speedometer! (It’s the one you see in the photo on the top!)

A Pediatric OT’s Take on Inside Out

A Pediatric OT's Take on Inside Out

Have you watched the movie Inside Out yet? My 6-year old has been super excited to watch it, and I must admit that I was looking forward to seeing it too. It’s a great animated film about a girl named Riley and her five emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, and about what happens when Riley undergoes a major change in her life and moves from Minnesota to California.

We watched the movie yesterday, and I unabashedly enjoyed it. I’ll even admit to shedding a few tears when… Sorry, not going to give away any spoilers here in case you haven’t seen it yet. It was fun watching the journey that Joy and Sadness took through Riley’s mind, and how the film explored the concepts of memory, the subconscious, the imagination, personality, and even abstract thought.

My favorite takeaway from Inside Out is the concept that all emotions are valuable, that each of them has something to teach us. Fear protects us from danger, Anger helps us stand up for ourselves, Disgust make sure we are not poisoned, and of course Joy helps us operate from a place of happiness. In the movie, the other emotions were not sure what the role of Sadness was, but by the end they realized that she had an important job, too. My takeaway on the role of Sadness is that she helps with developing empathy, as well as letting us know when we need to seek out support and connection with our loved ones.

Another important insight was that when we don’t allow ourselves to feel a certain emotion, such as Sadness, then our other emotions take over in trying to mask it. This often leads to more hurt and disconnection, as when Riley attempted to run away from home. In our larger society, this is seen in the prevalence of many addictive behaviors, and to a lesser extent, the many ways people try to numb and distract themselves from difficult emotions. The movie also showed that memories could be both happy and sad, and that sometimes it is out of the sad times in our lives that our happiest memories also arise.

Also, as an OT I think that the movie Inside Out brings the discussion about emotions into the mainstream pop movie culture. It opens up a way to dialogue with children about their feelings while giving them a frame of reference to relate to. It helps that the movie makes the emotions more concrete, so that kids have a mental picture in their head when discussing them. It also shows that everyone also has their own emotions, which may help some children grasp the theory of mind more concretely. The closing credits had a few more snippets that emphasized this, with even the dogs and cats having their own panel of emotions.

The only issue that I had with the movie is that the emotions were up at the Headquarters of Riley’s mind, and they were the only ones there. What about executive functioning? Logic, reason, self-control? Our mind is not controlled solely by emotions, that is why we developed our whole cerebral cortex. Not only that, Riley had no way to exert control over her emotions, it was her emotions that ran her life. All we see is the emotions making the decisions, and Riley reacting to them.  This movie adds a great deal to the conversation about emotions and self-regulation, but unfortunately lacks a key piece about the part of our brain that helps us deal with our emotions and take control instead of just reacting to outward events.

As a movie, I give Inside Out 5 stars. It was fun, entertaining, and it made me think. Not only that, it sparked some great conversations with my son about emotions and how we deal with them. As a metaphor for how our mind works, it was lacking. Our emotions are important, and should not be ignored, but they should not be the only ones running the show.


Have you watched Inside Out yet? What role did you think Sadness played? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

5 Ways to Recharge your Practice during your Summer Break


Is it your summer break yet? Even if you don’t work in school-based practice, most pediatric OTs still look forward to summer for a lighter caseload. I like to spend the first couple of days of my break doing absolutely nothing, but I’ve found that after a while that gets old, and I want to feel like I can still accomplish something during the break. This is the perfect time to get some stuff done that you’ve been meaning to do, but have no time during the regular schoolyear. So here are a few ideas on ways to recharge during the summer.

1. Read.

Make time to read that OT book you purchased that you’ve been meaning to read for a while. I know I get in the habit of buying books that I think will be useful, but not actually reading them. I used to joke that I was going to invent a pillow where you put a book underneath it as you sleep, and then overnight all the information in the book will be absorbed into your brain. But until I actually come up with that invention, you still have to actually read those books to benefit from the information in it. I’m planning to read a few chapters in Best Practices for OT in Schools. Or if a whole book is too daunting, just start with a couple of journal articles. Here’s an interesting one on expanding our role in helping young children develop writing skills. The current May/June issue of AJOT is also on my to-read list, I saw a bunch of interesting articles in there, too.

2. Organize your resources.

This is a good time to finally go through all those handouts you have, and get them organized and easily accessible when you need them. Set up a file box or drawer as a centralized resource for them, ideally in labeled folders for quick reference. Go through your black hole of a school bag. (What, you mean mine is the only one that is like a black hole? Oops.) Throw away those random bits and pieces that make their way to the bottom, and organize all your toys, games, craft materials, and equipment. Don’t forget to take them out of the trunk of your car so your crayons and theraputty doesn’t melt in the heat and get all over your stuff!

3. Network within the profession.

Start with your local state association. I recently attended a free OTAC Meet and Mingle event, and I met the association’s officers, as well as OT students, and even pre-students. I felt excited to start coming out of my own practice bubble and contributing more to the profession. If that’s too big a step for you, join a Facebook group on OT. My favorite one is a very active pediatric OT group with over 18,000 members. Read through the interesting posts, comment on some when you have ideas to contribute, maybe even ask a few questions of your own.

4. Look for new ideas.

Pinterest is your friend. If you enjoy browsing through different craft and treatment ideas, get started with your own boards and pin all the good stuff you find. Or follow OT Pinterest boards that you think are interesting. Gather up all those ideas to make treatment planning a breeze next schoolyear!

5. Work on your self.

When you become better as a person, you will also become a better therapist. Read a self-improvement book. Listen to some inspiring podcasts. Pursue those long neglected hobbies. Spend lots of quality time reconnecting with family and friends. Practice meditation and mindfulness. I am definitely actively working on myself this summer, and I am already feeling the benefits and seeing major changes in myself.


This way, when summer comes to its inevitable end, you won’t feel like the summer flew by with nothing accomplished, and you’ll start the school year refreshed, recharged, and ready to rock it!

What do you plan to do during your summer break? Leave some ideas in the comments!

Celebrating OT month



Happy OT Month! How are you celebrating OT month this year?

I love being able to promote awareness of OT! I was lucky enough to be able to volunteer in my son’s Kindergarten class last week to showcase our profession, since they were learning all about community helpers. I loved making the kids shout out, “Occ-u-pa-tion!” and talk about all the small “jobs” we have to do every day. I asked how many of the kids put their own clothes on this morning.  Most of them raised their hands. Then I told them that sometimes grown-ups get strokes, and they aren’t able to use one of their hands. I asked them to figure out how they would put on their clothes with only one hand, and that an OT could help them do that!

I also talked about how some OTs work in hospitals and help doctors. His class had already had a doctor give a presentation, and my son asked the question whether an OT was also a community helper. She replied that yes they are, and that they help doctors. Of course, since both my husband and I are school-based therapists, I talked about how some OTs work in schools and help teachers!

My favorite part was when I brought out some of the tools we use. I brought a Move N Sit cushion and a pressure vest, and took volunteers to try them out. I also brought my wheelbarrow walking mat and talked about how we can help kids get stronger, but in more fun ways than going to the gym and lifting weights! Of course I got a ton of volunteers to try out the mat. I also brought putty, a Start Right grip, and a Handiwriter. I still remember one of the boys giggling as he tried out the Handi-writer in front of the class.

The whole presentation must have really inspired my son, because when he had a project to create a paper doll of what he wanted to be when he grew up, he picked OT! (He had always previously said he wanted to be a doctor, more specifically a “dancing doctor scuba-diver.”) I racked my brain to figure out how to make an OT, and then I realized I could just use the Super OT logo I made for an OT month shirt! The photo at the top is his finished project. :)

Just in case you’re interested in getting your own Super OT shirt, check it out here on the website, or go directly to the Represent site to purchase it.



Happy OT month, fellow super occupational therapists!

End of schoolyear


The light at the end of the tunnel end of the schoolyear is coming up soon for many school-based OTs, and for some (me!) it is already here. Whew! What I had anticipated to be a busy month of March followed by a manageable April turned into a crazy March, super busy April and extended all the way into May. Dory’s wise words, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming” became my mantra, and I got through a busy IEP season.

I definitely didn’t reach my goal of a post a week, however I have many exciting plans for this blog that I will be working on this summer. Many of you have signed up for the newsletter, and I plan to come out with our first edition this August. Also, we will have new people posting and much more content on the blog. So stay tuned as we ramp up during this summer and into the next schoolyear!

How to survive IEP insanity

How to survive IEP insanity


So my plan for weekly posts had to go on the backburner, especially with IEP season coming up. You know what I mean right, the time of year when you have literally back-to-back-to-back IEPs and almost no time to prepare for them?

That’s me. For example, the week after spring break, I have 8 IEPs scheduled in a span of 3 days, with 6 of them being triennials or initials. Yikes.

You too? It’s good to know I am not alone. I do have a few tips that I am trying to live by, hopefully they will be helpful to you as well.

1. Plan ahead.

One of the schools I work at generally schedules its IEPs way in advance, because they have such a large volume of students on IEPs. I could see my crazy busy week coming from several weeks away, and have done my best to plan accordingly. I tried to schedule all my assessments well in advance, so I don’t run out of time to see the students in case they are absent. Also, I did my best to schedule in time to write up the reports onto my calendar. Of course, that doesn’t always go the way I want it to, but planning it in advance helps me see what tasks I need to accomplish in a certain period of time.

2. Break it up into smaller steps.

When you have so much on your plate that you need to get done, it can feel overwhelming to even know where to start. I created a checklist for myself (and named it the IEP insanity checklist) so I could check off the small steps I needed to complete to prep for an IEP. If I only have just enough time to go into SEIS (a web-based IEP management system) to update present levels and services, but don’t have time to enter the goals, I can go in and do that, then check off those two items on my list. Makes it easier to feel that I am actually accomplishing something. Plus I don’t have to backtrack later on and figure out what I have and haven’t done yet.

3. Ask for help when you need it.

It’s easy to feel like we need to be Superwoman (or Superman as the case may be), but it is important to ask for help when we are overwhelmed. I asked my COTA to take on a few of the monthly consults temporarily, to give me more time to focus on my IEPs. But that wasn’t enough, and I approached my supervisor to give me more time over the spring break to get all my IEPs done. I was very specific in what I had on my plate, what I had done to prepare for that, what I had already completed, and what I still needed extra time for. That way, she knew that I wasn’t just asking for extra time to finish things that I should have been able to get done during regular work hours. She approved it, (goodbye, two days of spring break!) but now at least I will get compensated for work that I would need to get done anyway.

4. Breathe. This too shall pass.

It’s easy to get caught up in the stress of what needs to get done and how little time we have to do it in, but hopefully, your entire schoolyear isn’t like that. My IEPs tend to ebb and flow, and it helps to remember that after the crazy IEP week, I may have a less hectic week or two. Mindfulness can be a helpful tool, not just for our clients, but for ourselves as well.

5. Remember who you are doing it for.

I know we are all in this job to try and help our students, but sometimes our main goal can take a back seat to the pressures from administration, parents, and just trying to get our part of the IEP prepared on time. But the main purpose of the IEP is for all the team members, including the parents, to collaborate on the best course of action for the student for the next year. Remembering this helps me keep my mind on my student and his or her needs, without letting outside pressures cloud my clinical judgement.

Whew! There is a light at the end of the tunnel, I just need to survive IEP insanity in the meantime!


Evidence-based Practice forAutism


The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders (NPDC) has just come out with a lit review on the interventions used with people with autism that are backed by research evidence. They reviewed a decade of research from 1990 to 2011 and came up with a total of 27 practices.

The lit review focused on what they called “focused intervention practices” instead of more comprehensive treatment models such as TEACCH or the Denver model.

Of course, the first thing I searched for as I scanned the list was sensory integration, and I wasn’t surprised to see it wasn’t included in the main list of 27 evidence-based practices. I did find “sensory diet” and “sensory integration and fine motor intervention” and surprisingly, Handwriting without Tears on the list of practices that had insufficient evidence at this time (page 25 & 26, if you’re interested). The good news is that even being included on that list means that there is some evidence of efficacy, just not enough yet to meet their set criteria for what would constitute an EBP.

You can download a copy of their report (for FREE) from this link: