Going Digital with Online Occupational Therapy

By: Clay Whitehead, Co-founder and Co-CEO of PresenceLearning
Faced with tighter budgets and the shift to Common Core standards, schools districts have had to get creative and “do more with less.” But the “more with less” approach can really backfire in Special Education, especially for kids that need speech-language pathology or occupational therapy to enable them to access the gen ed curriculum and stay on track with their peers. For these kids, earlier and more intensive interventions can transform their future outlook from grim and good. For these kids, timely interventions of appropriate intensity are absolutely key.
School districts’ best efforts to provide appropriate levels of services can be hampered by the logistics of serving students in remote locations as well as chronic shortages of qualified professional clinicians such as speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and occupational therapists (OTs).


Often, districts’ on-staff clinicians are burdened with large caseloads, negatively impacting student outcomes, clinician job satisfaction and legal compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). To combat these challenges, districts across the country have discovered that they can use online technology to provide live “anytime anywhere” speech therapy and are now beginning to do so with occupational therapy (OT), too.
As with (SLPS), there is a persistent shortage OTS in districts of all sizes and locales. Exacerbating the situation is an increasing number of students requiring OT services: about a fifth of America’s 6-7 million students with special needs need OT services.
PresenceLearning is just wrapping up our third full year of delivering online speech therapy in K-12, having delivered over 200,000 live, online sessions to thousands of K-12 students in 26 states. Now we are expanding our offering to OT services as well.
Similar to online speech therapy sessions, OT sessions connect a student with a real, live OT via interactive video conference, using a suite of online therapeutic activities and tracking tools. An on-site aide or learning coach helps coordinate the sessions and may help students practice specific foundational and  functional skills that students need for reading and writing, handwriting, keyboarding, cutting, and attending to tasks. Students use readily available and inexpensive materials such as pens, paper, tongs, dried pasta and other items to practice the functional, visual, fine motor and self-care skills they need in order to thrive in school and life.
Digital technology expands the reach and impact of therapeutic services for students with special needs, enabling timely interventions of appropriate frequency and intensity. With our online OT platform, parts of the country that are underserved by OTs now have access to a large and growing network of highly qualified, fully licensed professionals via the internet.
Online OT helps schools deliver OT services in the least restrictive environment (LRE) possible, improving compliance with IDEA. Online access to OT eliminates the time and cost associated with transporting students to other sites or specialty clinics, giving students more time in class with their peers.
With this digital delivery, the therapist, student, learning coach and parent work as a team to complete therapy sessions and carry over learned skills to the classroom and home settings. This extended team and parent involvement creates consistency and repetition, both paramount to positive student outcomes.
The ultimate goal of any special education initiative is to provide students with the support and skills they need in order to progress and, if possible, exit special education. By embracing new models for service delivery and adopting an online solution, schools can break the log-jam and get cost-effective and high-quality therapy for their students in need.
Clay Whitehead is the co-founder, co-CEO, and chief student advocate at PresenceLearning.  He is also a member of the company’s board of directors. Clay leads the company’s school partnership efforts, driving its commitment to ensuring the best care possible for all students.

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