February Spotlight: Occupational and Physical Therapy (OT/PT) Supports

Posted by AIU on 2/20/2024 7:05:00 AM

This month, we are taking a “look” at the myriad sensory supports for schools and students from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s Occupational and Physical Therapy Support Program, colloquially known by its acronym, OT/PT (no need to pronounce the slash!)

OT/PT provides an array of supports – visual, auditory, and tactile supports, as well as olfactory (smell), vestibular (balance), proprioceptive (self-movement and perception), and interoceptive (internal perception) assistance.

“As occupational and physical therapists, we understand that how a student processes sensory input can directly impact their success in the school environment,” said Holly McElhinny, the AIU’s OT/PT program director. Across many Allegheny County school districts, our support staff assists in the development of safe and effective sensory rooms, as well as more ad-hoc approaches like constructing pathways in hallways and smaller sensory “stations” throughout the school. OT/PT also helps with education and training fellow teachers and staff at our partnering educational agencies. McElhinny adds, “We feel it is essential that the teachers and staff working with students understand how sensory input is processed” and it is seamlessly incorporated into everyday school routine.

Sensory in Action

Sensory in Action bags filled with items for sensory activities

In September 2023, the AIU OT/PT program leveraged evidence-based practices and research to develop, create, and implement a new sensory program and newsletter designed to support Preschool Early Intervention (PEI) classroom routines. The “Sensory in Action” program was launched for teachers, staff, and students in both PEI classrooms and in itinerant settings. Therapists utilize a coaching model to provide ongoing support to classroom staff and families while incorporating ideas for sensory motor activities (essentially, how your body works with your mind to accomplish things) into already established classroom routines. Each newsletter has a sensory system focus and comes with a corresponding activity bag filled with fun materials to use during treatments or classroom routines.

The collaborative effort has been well-received by therapists in our PEI classrooms. Tracy Weber is an Occupational Therapist Assistant assigned to the Riverview PEI classroom. She noted one student there who struggles with engagement in class activities. The student was “totally tuned in” to one of the sensory activities outlined in the newsletter!

A student at North Allegheny playing with a sensory box.

Photo: Alisya Yusman uses her sense of touch to explore items in a bin. She uses her hands together to scoop and pour the beans, and her fingertips to pick up one at a time.  All of this is happening while Alisya is using flexible seating at the table.

To date, the program has rolled out newsletter editions focused on tactile, vision, and movement, and additional sensory domains will be featured soon!

AIU OT/PT’s Collaborative Work with our LEA partners: West Jefferson Hills

The West Jefferson Hills School District, in collaboration with Occupational Therapy Assistant Sheena Bonner and Occupational Therapist Lisa Karner, recently secured a $1,000 Foundation for Education grant that will help fund the creation of a sensory zone in the Jefferson Hills Intermediate School library. The project, designed with the specific needs of students in life skills classes in grades 3-5 in mind, aligns with the goals of the Jefferson Hills School District to create inclusive learning environments catering to the diverse learning styles and abilities of all students.

South Fayette School District

A heart sensory box for students at South Fayette Elementary.

At South Fayette Elementary, AIU Occupational Therapist Christine Nypaver and Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant Kim Rayburg are working in collaboration with South Fayette’s Director of Support Services, Dr. Rachel Andler, Principal Tyler Geist, and Vice Principal Pharlan Ives to update the school’s sensory room and develop sensory opportunities throughout the campus. A rock wall and rubber flooring were recently installed in the sensory room. Planned additions to the space include a permanent water table, a sensory table, and an updated swing.

“Sensory Stations” are also being developed throughout the school, which offer opportunities for students to take a break from the classroom and experience calming and organizing sensory input through bins filled with sensory materials, such as a heart sensory box (pictured). Sensory “Pathways” are also being created in hallways as another sensory experience students can utilize throughout their day.

At AIU-Operated Special Education Schools

In addition to their work in districts, the OT/PT program is hard at work implementing impactful settings in our AIU-operated special education school classrooms.

At Pathfinder, staff saw a need to have additional designated space and equipment to meet the unique needs of their primary grade-level students. This space could also be shared with and used by PEI students in the school's dedicated preschool classroom location. Through a collaborative effort, OT/PT staff worked closely with Pathfinder School Principal Nick Fratto, along with PEI supervisor Loreleigh Elders and director Carrie Frohnapfel, to equip, design, and build the new space and train the staff for appropriate, safe use and care of the room. In addition, AIU staff received the help of Jaelyn Taylor, a design student at Chatham University (and the daughter of OT/PT supervisor Ginger Nese), who developed the renderings for the project. 

In Monroeville, due to limited space availability, Sunrise School does not currently have a dedicated sensory room. A collaborative project is in the works to help meet this need. Instead of a single dedicated sensory room, OT/PT will be creating opportunities for sensory interaction throughout the school building. Areas will include a calming wall, an interactive sensory path leading to the cafeteria, and customized spaces outside some classrooms. Jaelyn Taylor will also be assisting with this project.