High School OT: Building Fine Motor Skills at Home

As a school-based occupational therapist, fine motor skills make up a large part of my practice. During this period of distance learning, I’ve been creating a series of parent resources on these skills and how they can be addressed at home. I wanted to share this information with a wider audience, so I’ll be posting them here as well. I hope this information is helpful! Today, I want to discuss how high school OT addresses fine motor skills.

What are fine motor skills?

“Fine motor skills” is actually an umbrella term that refers to many different hand skills. This is in comparison to gross motor skills which are usually done with larger movements/the whole body, such as running, catching a ball, or climbing. Fine motor skills may refer to:

  • Dexterity (ability to manipulate objects with small, precise movements)
  • Hand strength (ability to use the hand and forearm muscles)
  • Grasp/release (ability to hold onto objects in various ways, such as a pencil or a key)
  • Bilateral coordination (ability to use two hands together)
  • Motor planning (ability to effectively send a signal from the brain to coordinate a motor action)
  • Visual-motor integration (hand-eye coordination) 
  • Gradation of force (using an appropriate amount of force when completing an action) 

If your child has decreased fine motor skills, it’s possible that they could struggle with one of these areas but be great at another. Occupational therapy treatment focuses on doing an activity analysis to see what specific component a child may be having trouble with. 

Why are fine motor skills important in high school OT?

Fine motor skills allow us to effectively participate in a variety of activities, from self-help, to leisure, to jobs. Having deficits in this area can make participation in daily tasks difficult. 

What’s the best way to remediate fine motor skills?

Many people think of craft activities when they think of practicing fine motor skills. Others assume that you need a lot of specific equipment that you would find in an OT clinic such as tweezers, tongs, theraputty, hole punches, specialized scissors, etc. While activities of this type can be a fun way to address fine motor skills from a leisure standpoint, the best way to address motor skills is by actually working directly on the task the child is having trouble with. This also helps keep it functional and ensures that the tasks the child is practicing are specifically meaningful. 

Important to note: 

Even with remediation, your child’s fine motor skills might look different from others and that’s okay. It’s also important to bear in mind that fine motor skills are often not the primary reason a child may struggle with a task. Even if your child has decreased fine motor skills, cognition, attention, and emotional regulation can be bigger barriers to success with a task. 

Tips for High School Fine Motor Skills At Home: 

  • General strategies:
    • Let them attempt tasks independently! Many times we forget, or are in a rush, or don’t want to watch children struggle. However, practice is so necessary to be able to complete these tasks. 
    • Give extra time. Many children need increased time to compensate for processing speed. 
    • Make sure your child is positioned for success. Are they doing the task efficiently? Try to make sure that they are doing tasks at eye level close to their body. Sitting down at a table with feet flat on the floor may be ideal for learning/practicing a task.
    • Try backward chaining. This simply means doing all of the first steps of the task and allowing the child to complete the very last step. Once they’ve mastered the last step, you can have them do the second to last step and so on. This helps them get the reward of completing the task.
    • Model the task. Let your children watch you complete the task. Talk aloud and narrate each step as you do it.
    • Consider accommodations. If your child has been practicing a task for years but still hasn’t mastered it, consider alternate ways they could complete the task independently. 
    • Use a reward system or positive reinforcement. This is so important, especially if a child is struggling with a task. 
    • Build the task into daily routines. Practice is so important for developing proficiency with these tasks. Find a time in your daily routine where these skills make sense to address, such as zipping a coat before going outside, or cutting food at lunchtime. 
Lots of fine motor skills needed for this activity – opening containers, manipulating chopsticks, pouring liquids
  • Strategies for self-help:
    • Clothing fasteners:
    • Feeding:
      • Check positioning when practicing using utensils. Is your child scooted up close to the table? Are their feet steady on the floor? Is their plate close enough?
      • Prompt your children to open their own packages/containers.
      • Involve your child in the cooking process! Let them mix, stir, pour, and cut.
      • Consider the accommodation of using scissors to open a package. 
      • Try Dycem or alternative bowls/plates to help keep food steady.
      • Alternative utensils may be helpful for your child, such as weighted utensils, utensils with a built-up handle, or self-leveling utensils
    • Toileting:
      • Make sure the toilet paper is positioned where your child can easily reach and grasp it.
      • Consider a toilet paper wand as an accommodation if your child has trouble maintaining grasp on the toilet paper.
    • Hygiene:
      • Let your child practice opening containers, squeezing, and pouring as part of their hygiene routine.
      • Some children may benefit from using a smaller bottle when practicing squeezing out appropriate amounts of soap or shampoo. You can transfer a product into a travel size bottle to help facilitate this.
      • Consider using a u-cuff to if your child has trouble sustaining grasp on objects. 
Playing a board game
  • Strategies for leisure: 
    • Have your child choose a board game they enjoy playing. Let them practice moving their own piece, rolling dice, shuffling cards, etc.
    • If your child uses an iPad for leisure, consider having them use a stylus to practice sustaining grasp.
      •  Dexteria is another beneficial app that focuses on different fine motor movements such as pinching or tapping.
    • Legos are a great way to build hand strength and coordination.
Filling out a planner
  • Strategies for writing:
    • If your child is still struggling with handwriting in high school, habits can be very hard to change or remediate. I recommend exploring assistive tech options.
      • Typing, speech-to-text, predictive text, or symbol-supported communication may be beneficial for your child.
    • Children may benefit from practicing typing, but may not touch-type with traditional finger placement.
      • Typing.com is a great website where you can save progress for free.
    • A name stamp may be a beneficial accommodation for students who have difficulty writing their name.

I hope these strategies were helpful in understanding high school OT fine motor skills! Do you have any other fun strategies to share?

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