School therapy has helped students with disabilities succeed for decades, though the move to digital-based education is shaping the benefits in a new, improved way.
Eleni Kaufman is a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) with Constellation and has a passion for helping “others live their lives to their fullest,” which includes children with special needs. She spends her time assisting the pediatric population with movement and mobility by developing gross motor skills necessary for them to physically participate in a variety of settings—navigating the hallways, accessing the playground, or participating in physical education class—throughout their school day.
As part of the Constellation School-Based Therapy (SBT) team, she often integrates within school systems, working with therapists including occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, school psychologists, social workers, special education teachers, and applied behavioral therapists (ABA) to meet the needs of children.
School therapy is designed to address the significant deficits that impact functionality and improve learning. Each therapy plan is customized with the objective to help students better access their school curriculum and environment.
“For example,” Kaufman says, “if a student lacks a gross motor development skill—maybe they can’t throw a ball or have difficulty with ball skills like kicking, throwing, catching—that impacts their ability to be included and to participate with their peers in physical education class. We would address that deficit through therapy with specific goals and objectives.”
School Therapy in the New Normal
Constellation has partnered with public and private schools, school districts, and early childhood development programs for over 20 years as part of its School-Based Therapy (SBT) services.
With years of experience, Constellation has been better positioned to pivot SBT services during the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to provide high-quality, custom therapy. Kaufman points out that the pandemic has certainly shifted the way therapists teach. Digital offerings have become the norm when therapists cannot connect in person due to school closures or social distancing measures.
Below, Constellation discusses the benefits of school therapy and how it has evolved during this new digital era.
Education & Communication
One of the silver linings during COVID-19 has been the necessity for parents to get involved with their child’s school therapy. Kaufman points out that before this shift to digital, therapists would often be the sole teachers. Now, Kaufman has to explain and communicate to parents online how to perform activities she had typically exercised with her students in person. For example, she will often coach the parents through therapy, whether it’s a yoga pose or a game to improve gross motor performance.
“Parents are learning that process and learning how to do these activities with their children on their own,” Kaufman says, “so they can better support them at home. But we’re also giving them that patient education. It’s like two peas in a pod. As therapists, we work on our communication skills to give them more information to better support their children. At the same time, they’re getting involved. They’re part of the process, which I think is phenomenal.”
The educational role therapists play must also include communicating with students’ teachers.
“We work closely with the families and educators so that they have all of the skills necessary to carry those therapy sessions over, whether it be in the home or in the classroom. That can close the gap with all of the struggles and the difficult challenges faced when a child has a disability. By providing educators that additional support and offering strategies, they can better help support their students. It’s an awesome process.”
Another benefit of the digital era has been the move towards more creativity. When faced with communicating through a computer screen, how can you make learning more fun and engaging?
“I’m always trying to come up with new creative ways to get the children that I work with engaged in their sessions,” Kaufman says. “A lot of it is constantly having to be on the ball and come up with novel, fun things to do because it can get very monotonous and boring just doing exercises. If I told you to do jumping jacks every session, it’d get pretty boring, right? It’s been an interesting time having to come up with all of these new creative ways to implement my services over the computer screen.”
In response, Kaufman built her own website—grossmotorfun.com—that she’s introduced to colleagues, parents, and educators. From games like gross motor bingo to virtual board games, she has developed ways to engage and continue education through this digital era.
In an effort to support children, families, and educators achieve success, Constellation created the Facebook page Constellation Kids to provide resources and news about in-home ABA therapy and SBT.
“Constellation is good about that—therapists all coming together and sharing their different resources and their different ideas,” she says.
Providing accessibility for students is an objective and benefit of SBT, whether it’s helping students confidently move through school hallways or helping them feel included on the playground.
For Kaufman, it’s about developing independence. One of her students with cerebral palsy, with whom she’s been working with for five years, comes to mind.
“When I had initially started working with him, he was very wheelchair-bound,” she says. “After the first time I worked with him, I knew he had so much potential than what anyone gave him credit for. During our therapy sessions, we worked a lot on building functional strength. Part of that was also providing him a more suitable assisted device that could help him be more independent and mobile throughout the school. I think that’s one of the best parts of my job—watching these children evolve. Now five years later, he’s so mobile and so much more independent. It’s been awesome to see the growth, not only in the strength and the mobility, but also in the confidence to participate more with his peers.”
In the end, it’s about helping students succeed in their communities and connecting through continued digital communications. This particular family sent Kaufman photos and videos of their son adapting and evolving as a student.
“I get to see that as well,” she says, “just how they’ve evolved into being more independent within the school and out in the community. So for me, it’s just a really gratifying career as a PTA. I love working in the schools. I absolutely love working with the pediatric population. I thoroughly enjoy working with all of my students and helping give them the opportunities to build the skills they need to be more successful in the school environment.”
In the Northeast, Constellation has partnered with private and public schools, school districts, and early childhood development programs for over 20 years to provide evidence-based behavior, occupational, and physical therapy solutions and management consulting services that help children reach their full potential. Constellation’s ABA program is designed to customize appropriate interventions and treatment plans for every child.