April is Occupational Therapy Month. The American Occupational Therapy Association defines school-based occupational therapy as using meaningful activities (occupations) to help youth participate in daily life by focusing on academics, play, social participation, self-care and work skills. However, to HCDE school-based therapist Bhooma Parthasarathy, it is much more than that.
She says it is her calling.
“I enjoy working with students in the classroom, especially when we feel like they can perform a task but are hindered either by the environment or physical challenges,” said Parthasarathy. “When we accommodate or provide them with the adaptations they need, it’s amazing to see how they take off. That’s the best part of my job.”
Parthasarathy, who has spent 24 years in school-based practice, is one of many occupational therapists (OTs) and occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) who support the physical, cognitive, psychosocial, and sensory elements of being a student.
She initially began her career in the pediatric unit of a hospital in India, where she graduated from the University of Mumbai. She switched to the school-based environment when she moved to the U.S. and instantly fell in love with it.
“I was trying to find my niche,” said Parthasarathy. “I really enjoyed it, so I stuck with it.”
OTs and OTAs regularly collaborate with teachers and others on a campus’ team to assist with the adaptive equipment, assistive technology, and strategies that are needed to ensure a student is successful at school. Their objective is to reduce the physical or emotional barriers to specific activities, including writing, typing, self-feeding, paying attention to their teachers, or managing overstimulation by bright lights, loud sounds, or sensory classroom elements.
Jenny Dees, a life skills teacher at Cooper Elementary School, is grateful for the therapists’ training sessions and impartial perspective.
“As educators in a self-contained classroom, we tend to work within a vacuum. We often lack an outside perspective as to what we could be doing differently,” said Dees. “Providers like Bhooma are amazing at giving us ideas and insights.”
The makings of a strong OT or OTA include the ability to identify creative solutions and shift as the goals, challenges, and availability of teachers and students evolve.
“Flexibility is our number one thing,” said school-based occupational therapist Annalisa Pablo, who is in her third year of school-based therapy. “Things change all the time, so we have to be adaptable to support students in their natural environment because, at this period in their lives, school is their occupation.”
Pablo, Parthasarathy, and the teachers they work with in Spring Independent School District with share an appreciation for the cohesion between instructional staff and OTs, and physical therapists, speech pathologists, visual impairment teachers, and parents.
“This collaboration is integral to providing the support that students need,” said Dees.
When students succeed, everyone celebrates, says Parthasarathy.
“Seeing how far they’ve come, I want to do a happy dance,” she said. “Sometimes, we’re all doing a happy dance together.”