Occupational therapists can play a powerful role in establishing healthy habits in kids. The Occupational Therapy Framework indicates a connection between healthy routines and occupations, making healthy habit monitoring and implementation of strategies a meaningful role for therapists to address. Therapists work on a variety of skills when they take the “whole person” lens on helping kids achieve functional goals. Providing healthy habits as part of that wholistic approach can be a supplement to traditional occupational therapy interventions.
Healthy Habits in Kids and Occupational therapy
According to the Occupational Therapy Practice Framework, Domain and Process, therapists can play a powerful role in addressing healthy habits in kids. A habit such as drinking enough water, getting enough sleep revolves around routines. Using practical suggestions, adaptive materials, or modifications such as equipment that supports the individual’s specific needs, OTs can address those needs to make healthy choices a part of a child’s every day.
Healthy habits that can impact a child’s occupational roles (school work and learning, play, roles as a sibling or family member, etc.) can include these:
- Education on getting enough sleep
- Limiting personal device screen time or television
- Getting enough physical activity
- Making good food choices
- Spending enough time studying
- COmpleting household roles such as chores
- Using a positive mindset during various occupational roles
Occupatioanl Therapy’s role in establishing healthy habits in kids
All of these areas impact function. When a child doesn’t get enough sleep, they can struggle with task completion, learning, and general occupational performance.
AOTA Fact Sheet on sleep describes interventions and the role of OT in addressing sleep issues in children and adults. SOme of those interventions can be included in educating family members, and others are performed by directly intervening with the child through awareness and strategies, etc.
This might look like the following ways to make sleep a healthy habit in kids:
- Educating on routines and patterns
- Sensory strategies to calm or to address sensory seeking/sensory avoiding behaviors
- Visual schedules and step-by-step task lists
- Sharing options for sleepwear and bedding to address sensory needs
- Making suggestions for the evening routines
- Family calming routines and activities
- Suggestions on lighting, white noise options, relaxation time before bed
- Daytime activities that can increase activity and exercise resulting in better sleep
- Interoception education and interventions
- Bedtime snack suggestions
- Bedtime relaxation stretches to calm and organize the sensory system right before bed
- Use of modifications such as blackout curtains, white noise machines, compression pajamas, weighted blankets, bedding, etc.
Similar to addressing sleep needs in children, OT can play a role in intervening in other healthy patterns by educating, providing strategies to address sensory needs, intervening in alertness and modulation, providing modifications to current environments, informing parents on interoception and the role that sensory system plays in areas like thirst, eating, rest, etc.
Likewise, providing visual and verbal cues through checklists and bringing self-awareness to the child is an important strategy.
Using a checklist, short journaling prompts, habit trackers, etc. are great strategies.
The thing is that making these choices are not so much difficult, as they are…not easy. It’s easier for them to grab an unhealthy snack. It’s easier to sit and watch videos on their tablet. It’s easier to stay sedentary than it is to get up and go outside. It’s easier to toss their shoes, coats, food wrappers, whatever everywhere than it is to pitch in and declutter.
But, providing education, awareness, and intervention can help to move unhealthy choices toward the right direction.
Healthy Habits and Executive Functioning
Take a look at some of the healthy habits kids are impacted by in everyday tasks. It’s interesting to note the role that executive functioning skills play in making these decisions. A decision to eat a bunch of junk food over a healthy snack can be impacted by impulse control and self-regulation. Similarly, making a point to put down a screen device or making an active choice to participate in physical play takes incentive on the part of a child. There is so that goes into a child making healthy choices beyond simply knowing it’s good for them.
But there’s more to it than simply comfort levels. Executive functioning and higher-level cognitive skills play a huge impact in breaking bad habits, and making healthy choices that ultimately lead to healthy routines.
One study found that the disruption of unhealthy habits can be made possible by improvements in executive function. It indicated that cognitive flexibility, is a means to making these changes by behavioral changes.
Strategies to improve healthy habits in kids
In all unhealthy habits that impact occupation, therapists can work through making parents more aware of the issues limiting occupational performance. They can educate the family members about what’s going on behind the scenes to impact that performance level, and they can provide specific interventions to address those needs.
Teach healthy habits in kids by modeling good habits
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One of the best ways to encourage healthy habits in children is to model healthy habits as an adult. When kids see mom, dad, or other key adults in their lives doing the very healthy tasks of making smart food choices, exercising, sleeping, putting down the screens, that visual is a way to help kids develop and grow as they make their own healthy choices. It’s a win-win!
One way that adults can model healthy choices is through exercising in the home. When kids see adults exercising, they have that positive interaction with physical activity.
Having a treadmill in the home is one sure-fire way to encourage movement, exercise, and healthy habits that are integrated into the day-to-day. Use the motivating aspects of music, podcasts, and even Netflix when running on the treadmill. What motivates you?
With the Horizon Fitness treadmills and fitness equipment, there are a number of entertainment apps and streaming options, including Bluetooth speakers, live or on-demand fitness apps, and other streaming fitness opportunities. All of these extras are designed to promote improved physical exercise and meaningful motivation.
What a fun way to encourage healthy family habits!
Teach healthy habits in kids with routines
For routines such as physical activity, therapists can help individuals identify goals, provide potential physical activity ideas and methods, and establish tracking methods to help them monitor, measure progress, and revise goal areas.
Habit tracking and progress monitoring
The Impulse Control Journal is one method of tracking habits and monitoring personal goals with kids. The journaling sheets, habit trackers, goal planning sheets, and jun pages make a creative and realistic means of working toward healthy habits that improve occupational performance.
American Occupational Therapy Association. (2014b). Occupational therapy practice framework: Domain and process (3rd ed.). American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 68(Suppl. 1), S1–S48. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2014.682006
MePicard, M. American Occupational Therapy Association. (2017). Occupational Therapy’s Role in Sleep. Retrieved from https://www.aota.org/.
Reifenberg, G., & Persch, A. (2018, January 22). Practical Tools for Addressing Healthy Habits in Children. Retrieved January 28, 2020, from https://www.aota.org/publications-news/otp/archive/2018/practical-tools-for-addressing-healthy-habits-in-children.aspx
Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.