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Sensory Assessments As Part of a Unified Early Learning Testing Protocol

School based screenings for young children are common, but what do they test, and are they enough? They are usually generalized for fine and gross motor, basic perception and social/emotional development.

All of this information is important and very valuable, but for some children essential insights into the quality of a specific performance are not addressed in what “TOTEMS”* used to call “quick and dirty” overviews. (TOTEMS and AOTA program Training Occupational Therapists for Educational Management Systems).

Some children just seem to be missing the ability to “stay with the group”. (That is what I hear a lot of when parents call about their young children.) Discovering “why” often falls to the OT doing a specialized assessment.

Many preschool and lower school directors respond to these children by suggesting facilitators who stay with the child during school. While in many cases these individuals do an excellent job, they are also expensive and make the child “stand out” from their peers within the classroom.

Screening for developmental issues can help both the parent and the school administrator decide on the best placement for the child. While the majority of early learners do very well in traditional typical programs, the ones that do not suffer in the same situation. That is when seeking an alternative modified program may be advised.

Learning should never hurt, and early learning should be joyous. For the child with sensory developmental issues school can be a scary place. Try to think about going to the same place everyday but not being able to recognize it as familiar. Think about going to a familiar place but finding noise, smells or light noxious. Put yourself in the “shoes” of a child with postural instability and asking them to sit a table for any length of time.

Knowing these things before the child enters the classroom can make the difference success or failure for these young learners. It is also good information for both parents and teachers to have on all children. Therefore a unified assessment process should include a parent checklist and an admissions or early in the school year assessment.

The parent checklist should include items that address self-care, family participation, self-calming and interests as well as the standard motor/task areas. A sample of such a checklist is offered in pdf format and can be downloaded here.

The teacher would also be asked to fill out this checklist and the results compared. It is important to (gently) explain to the parent that life on “Planet Home” is very different than life on “Planet School”*. It is often hard for parent to get that they have been “trained” by their children to anticipate areas that may be stressful for them and thus circumventing challenging situations. This is particularly difficult if the child in question is number one! (*From Learning Re-Enabled, Mosby/Elsevier Books)

Parents of young children are often focused on are they “having fun” and are they “happy”, while teachers are focused on the physical, intellectual, emotional and the neurological actions and reactions impacting learning. Unfairly, teachers are often deemed “unfriendly” by parents or having a “personality conflict” when issues are revealed.

The Occupational Therapist can play a pivotal role in the assessment and learning environment by explaining development to the parent and the teacher so that increased understanding can be attained. The OT can also help explain the crucial importance of early intervention and discouraging the “wait and see” attitude many parents may choose if they do not fully understand the issues.

And we all can be reminded of the famous quote by Mel Levine, MD author of A Mind at a Time, “children do not outgrow anything but their clothes.”

As Occupational Therapists one of our many roles with children is to make sure they grow with their clothes.

Susan N. Schriber Orloff, OTR/L, is the author of Learning Re-enabled, a guide for parents, teachers and therapists. The National Education Association, and the International Learning Disabilities Association endorse the book. She is the Director of the Modified Developmental Preschool in Dunwoody, GA. Susan writes “Ask the Therapist,” a column in Exceptional Parent magazine, and is CEO and is the executive director of Children’s Special Services, LLC, an occupational therapy service for children with developmental and learning delays in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached on the Web at www.childrens-services.com or through YourTherapySource.com.

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