List of Student Strengths For IEP Writing

Student strengths for IEP

Here we are covering more on student strengths for IEP writing, which is an area of the student’s Individualized Education Plan that should never be overlooked. Student strengths in the classroom are important to understanding the student as a whole! In this post I will provide a few examples of items to add to your list of student strengths for IEP writing, to help you get the ball rolling. In order to provide a wide range of options, some general strengths and along with some that are more specific to occupational therapy will be highlighted.

Student strengths for IEP


Because the IEP is written in order to provide specialized services to help a student access their education, much of the conversation in IEP meetings is focused on what the student needs to work on, or what staff supports are needed/provided to help the student.

The strengths section balances that conversation with the more positive side of things.

Here’s how I like to think of it: the strengths of the student are the building blocks that new skills will be added to – or in other words, how can the student use their current strengths to help them make more gains in the future? 

Taking that question into consideration can help a student make goals or develop skills based on personal strengths and achievements. Use this letter to future self as a guide post in developing a growth mindset using those personal strengths.

In this section, when writing the list of student strengths for IEP, we want to be sure to write newly achieved skills, other pertinent skills, personal qualities, family, and community strengths as well. Read on to see examples. 

LIst of student strengths for IEP: Any New Skills 

My favorite part of the strengths section of an IEP is when I get to write a current strength of a student, that used to be a weakness. For example, one of my students was originally receiving occupational therapy to address fine motor skills and visual motor skills. Now, he has perfect handwriting, and no longer needs specialized services for this skill area!

What a powerful way to support a child’s progression than to shout their achievements out for the whole educational team to hear! (Though literal shouting in an IEP meeting may be frowned upon.)

Kidding aside, any recent gains should be included in the strengths section of the IEP, in addition to the positive qualities they have always possessed. Both of these areas should always be shared with the student as well. It can support carryover of goal areas, as well as encourage meaningful participation.

Hint: If you aren’t sure what counts as a “new” skill, or strength, look at any recent progress towards their goals, or maybe a goal that has been met! 

Examples of new skills or strengths:

  • Improving to a mature pencil grasp
  • Following a 2-step direction
  • Sharing toys or school supplies
  • Improved use of coping skills
  • Increased focus during reading
  • Independent use of adaptive equipment or other classroom tools 
  • Improved memory for computer use
  • Correct letter formation 
  • Maintains seated position on the carpet with peers
  • Independently zips and unzips coat

Look at special qualities when listing student strengths on the IEP

What makes this student unique? Taking a look at specific student strengths in the classroom is a great place to start.

Maybe they are a great helper in the classroom, a friend to all, or have a stand-out-talent in music class.

I like to look at their special interests and include a few; if they share their love of Spiderman or Minecraft, and integrate it into their school day appropriately, that may be worth noting.

This contribution to the list of student strengths for IEP is far less based on goals or reasons for specialized services, but it is integral to who the student is at the end of the day. It also gives any new coming team members some ideas of what motivates the student. 

Examples of Special Qualities to list on the IEP

  • Builds friendships easily
  • Carries the books of a peer
  • Very optimistic thinker
  • Loves to draw for free choice
  • The perfect “line leader” 
  • Shares preferred items with peers
  • Always excited for math class 
  • Teaches peers to play Spiderman at recess time 
  • Enjoys crafting wooden sculptures
  • Empathetic
  • Loves to write to her pen pal 

Family or Community Strengths for the IEP

Making a note about the strengths of a student’s family or community supports on the IEP report is not always recognized in the list of student strengths IEP section, but it is worth noting. These areas of strength are part of the student’s environment, and impact overall functional performance of the student.

Some case managers, or more broadly, school districts, like to expand student strengths beyond the student solely in the school setting. Bringing in the family or community broadens the lens to what outside supports the student has.

Another way to think about it is, what outside help does this student have to help them achieve their goals? Having a supportive family and community will absolutely affect student growth.

Additionally, if there are any special interests of the student that are community-based, this may be a great opportunity to highlight that. An outside hobby, sport or group can be integral to the student’s school success. This is especially true to students who will be graduating soon, and will be integrating into the community. 

Examples of Family or Community Strengths to list on the IEP

  • Loving family with mom, dad, and sister
  • Cared for primarily by paternal grandmother whom he talks about often 
  • Lives with foster family who act as great advocates
  • Attends weekend camp at the YMCA where he builds community skills
  • Meets community members while he works part-time as a grocery store clerk 
  • Plants a garden at the senior center every spring
  • Is a member of the local special Olympics team 
  • Member of Girl or Boy Scouts
  • Competes well on a soccer team

The list of student strengths for IEP writing can be endless!

There are so many areas of strength that you could dive into: physical strengths, academic strengths, social skills, emotional regulation…the list goes on!

If IEP writing is new to you, or you are not sure what to add based on your role, just remember to think of the student as a whole. Think of their goals and their history. Do they always make you laugh? Maybe they are as sweet as can be? Write it down! This is the time to gloat about your student. 

Sydney Thorson, OTR/L, is a new occupational therapist working in school-based therapy. Her
background is in Human Development and Family Studies, and she is passionate about
providing individualized and meaningful treatment for each child and their family. Sydney is also
a children’s author and illustrator and is always working on new and exciting projects.

Occupational Therapy for Teenagers

occupational therapy for teenagers

Occupational therapy for teenagers can look a lot different than OT interventions for preschoolers. Middle school occupational therapy and high school occupational therapy sessions focus more on transitional stages as children age into teenagers and beyond.

occupational therapy for teenagers

Occupational Therapy for Teenagers

In the younger grades, school occupational therapy practitioners go into the school setting armed with playdough, scissors, pencils, crayons, glue, fidgets, and a few games/puzzles. 

What about the middle school occupational therapy population…and those years following in the high school OT interventions?  These teenagers are not motivated by crayons, Candyland, letter formation exercises, or cut and paste activities.  Nor should they be.  Unless your middle school caseload is in a self contained classroom functioning at a preschool level, these games and activities are not appropriate or practical. This post will explore the tricky transition from elementary to middle school occupational therapy.

Starting in late elementary school, many therapists transition their caseload from a direct to indirect, or consultative therapy model at this time, especially if they have been working with a particular student for several years.

Reasons OT for teenagers moves to consultation

When a student remains on the OT caseload into the middle school setting, therapy typically does transition to consultation. Why? There are several valid reasons for doing so.  There are many reasons why transitioning from direct services to a consultation model is appropriate for teenagers (in middle school and high school). The primary reasons for transitioning to a consultative model are:

  • Teenagers are self conscious and do not care for a therapist coming into their general education classroom to sit by them, observe, or ask questions. A consultative model allows the student to take ownership over their therapy recommendations.
  • Middle school schedules are busy. It can be difficult to ensure carryover of occupational therapy goals when there are many different teachers on the student’s schedule. Therapists make suggestions but then the recommendations may not be carried over to each class. Additionally, pulling a student for individual therapy weekly means they are missing valuable learning time.
  • Handwriting habits are set and unlikely to change at this age. Pencil grasp development and letter formation skills are often formed by the age of eight, making adjustments in middle school difficult. The same is true for Visual perceptual skills.
  • Students do not want adaptations that make them stand out from their peers. They will resist noise cancellation headphones, a scribe for written notes, alternative seating, weighted items, or noticeable fidgets.
  • Executive function – many middle schools already incorporate these skills into their program through schedules, planners, online classrooms, and reminders.
  • Students in the middle school and high school settings are most likely using technology, virtual classrooms, and email to do much of their school work by this point.
  • Students have often been receiving services since early elementary school.  Changes are less likely to happen at this stage, if they have not already.

Direct interventions Occupational Therapy for teenagers

Middle school occupational therapy is not a one size fits all model.

There are several reasons to keep a student on a direct therapy service model during middle school and the high school years. It’s important to realize that moving from direct services to consultation should not occur simply because the student ages out of the elementary buildings.

Teenagers receiving occupational therapy services may continue on with the direct therapy model for several reasons:

  • Self contained students work at a different pace than their mainstreamed counterparts. They may continue to need more intervention.
  • Lower level learners will need to be transitioning to a life skills or self help model, if they have not already. This means new objectives and goals to address. Some of these areas to address include: life skills cooking tasks, starting at the beginning with cursive name writing, changing clothing for gym or swimming at school, perineal care to address menstruation needs, or other skills.
  • Middle schoolers are a different breed of people. There are new social expectations, hormonal changes, levels of independence, and increased demands for self help skills or self-regulation skills.
  • It may take time to educate families and caregivers about this change in service model, and expectations. Automatically moving everyone to an indirect model, or discharging them, may be too abrupt for anxious parents or overwhelmed teachers

The Role of the occupational therapist with teenagers

The teenage years bring many changes that impact functioning abilities that impact the education in middle school or high school.

Seruya and Ellen write about the Role of the Middle School Occupational Therapist.  They highlight several important factors or strategies to intervention

  • Involve your learner in decision making about goals and objectives. These will be more meaningful and motivating to your students.
  • Transition away from typical handwriting goals to more functional goals
  • Teach typing and word processing.
  • Address motor skills use of calculators, rulers, graph paper, etc.
  • Address organization of locker and homework planner.
  • Provide adaptations if your learner is not able to complete work in an effective manner. A scribe to write notes for them, word processing versus written documentation, lessen the workload if writing is too labor intensive, preferential seating to improve attention.
  • Address any lingering or new sensory concerns.  Provide adaptation for these with preferential seating, alternative seating, gum or fidgets for self regulation, ear plugs to reduce incoming sounds, and organizational tools.
  • Address important life skills – learners need to know their emergency contact information, effectively groom themselves, take care of feminine hygiene issues, advocate for themselves, and follow a schedule.
  • Some interventions may require private therapy to be more appropriate such as meal preparation, laundry, ordering from a menu, shopping, budgeting, or filling out an application. These would be appropriate goals for students in a self contained classroom.

how to improve handwriting for teenagers

There are times when therapists are called to continue to address handwriting in their middle school population.  Intervention needs to be functional, beyond basic letter formation. Functional handwriting can mean learning to write the letters in a name in print or cursive, filling in forms, and essential handwriting life skills.

Handwriting help for middle schoolers

Miss Jamie, a school based OT, has written a post about Addressing Handwriting in Middle Schoolers.  She has gone so far as to write a second post here.  

One handwriting goal for middle schoolers, or even handwriting in high school may address the letter formation or number formation to write identifying information such as name, address, phone number.

For example, a handwriting goal for teenagers may be:

“This student will be able to independently write identifying information (name, address, phone number) without a model with 80% legibility.”

Another handwriting goal might be:

“The student will be able to write or access information to fill out a form independently.” 

The OT Toolbox has a great post about filling out forms. (Coming soon)

Transition to middle school and high school occupational therapy

What can you do to help this transition to middle school occupational therapy and high school occupational therapy?

  • Educate – teachers, parents, and other caregivers may not understand the role of the occupational therapist in middle school.  It may be time for a little education on the services provided and the therapeutic model. 
  • Empathy – reducing therapy minutes may feel like the student is not going to improve, or they are being given up on.  It is tough for parents to imagine their learner may never write a sentence, read independently, or live alone.  This is the time to gently begin this conversation.
  • Collaborate – work with educators and families to determine what are appropriate functional goals and needs in the classroom, and how they can be addressed. This blog on collaboration between OT and educators can assist.
  • Continue Direct Intervention– There may be a need for direct therapy intervention. Keep your students motivated with relevant and important treatment activities. 
  • Address life skills.  The OT Toolbox has a series of life skills posts including cooking, laundry, filling out forms, and social stories.

Working with teenagers in occupational therapy can be challenging. A few final tips for the OT working in middle schools or high schools:

  1. Remember teenagers are suddenly big and somewhat awkward.
  2. Keep goals and objectives focused on relevant and functional skills.
  3. Educate staff and caregivers about the role of the OT in schools.
  4. Provide resources, and make adaptations to the educational environment to help students better access their curriculum. 
  5. Try not to be in the hallways when they are transitioning between classes!  

NOTE*The term, “learner” is used throughout this post for readability and inclusion. This information is relevant for students, patients, clients, preschoolers, kids/children of all ages and stages or whomever could benefit from these resources. The term “they” is used instead of he/she to be inclusive.

Victoria Wood

Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

School Bus Deep Breathing Exercise- A Stress Relaxation Tool

School bus deep breathing exercise for stress relaxation on the bus

Whether you are needing a bus stop activity to keep the kids calm and collected near a busy street or a sensory diet activity for the rides to school on the bus, this   school bus deep breathing exercise fits the bill. The school bus setting is unpredictable for sensory kids and this breathing activity is an easy stress relaxation tool that kids can add to their toolbox of coping strategies.

Time for school buses, school supplies, backpacks, new teachers, new friends, and new stressors.  While school can be fun and educational, it can also be a time of stress and overwhelm.  Teaching self regulation is important for school success.  Students and teachers love these Deep Breathing Exercises

School bus deep breathing exercise self regulation tool for stress relaxation on the bus.
Use this printable school bus deep breathing page as a sensory strategy for the school bus!

Just in time for back to school, the OT Toolbox has a great new School Bus Deep Breathing Exercise page to share. AND, it includes a school bus coloring page, too!

Stress Relaxation

One benefit of this sensory school bus strategy is the use in stress relaxation strategies in response to fight, flight, freeze, and other autonomic responses.

What do we mean by stress relaxation?

First, let’s cover how this works. When faced with an unfamiliar, unwanted, or overwhelming challenge, the central nervous system employs its fight, flight, or freeze response.  This is an automatic brain stem response to input.  Because everyone’s central nervous system is different, people respond differently to input.  Some people startle easily, are afraid of bugs, don’t tolerate loud noise or crowds, and are very sensitive. 

Others take life in stride, nothing tends to bother them. 

While this School Bus Deep Breathing Exercise is targeted for those who need to slow their central nervous system, everyone can benefit from taking a break once in a while to reset. When a body is in its fight, flight, or freeze mode, the central nervous system takes over.

The following may be symptoms of this autonomic response:

  • The heart rate may increase
  • Increased breathing rate 
  • Elevated heart rate/blood pressure/temperature 
  • Sweating
  • Hiccups
  • Excessive emotional outbursts
  • Decreased cognitive skills as all energy goes into protecting the body
  • Digestive issues

Because of this autonomic or automatic response to stimuli, people can make a conscious effort to combat these symptoms.  One quick and easy way to slow down heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and emotional outbursts is by using deep breathing exercises to relax the stress response. 

Education on self regulation is an important step of sensory based treatment.  Teaching a person to understand their body, triggers, and response to input will help them choose an appropriate treatment method, and a perfect time to use it. 

The use of stress relaxation strategies is a work in progress, and takes a long time to achieve self regulation.  Adults as well as children need help and reminders along the way when they are feeling out of control.

We have other fun and motivating breathing exercises for kids in the school setting on the site, too. These include:

School Bus Deep Breathing Exercise

The OT Toolbox is full of Breathing Exercise Worksheets.  The newest one, The School Bus, comes at a great time of year. It’s the perfect tool to use in stress responses on the school bus. Add this sensory strategy in school environment to the bus environment which can be unpredictable, full of loud sounds, vibration and unpredictable movements, and an opportunity for sensory overload.

Use the school bus sensory strategy to support different needs:

  • A sensory diet for the school bus
  • Waiting for the bus activity
  • Stress response to a simulating school bus environment

Have learners place their finger on a white dot.  Instruct them to breathe in while sliding their finger across the arrow.  On the next arrow, they are instructed to breathe out.  Learners can go around the bus as many times as it takes for them to feel more in control of their body.  

We’ve also included a deep breathing coloring page, in this set, too. Use it to work on coloring skills and pull in other areas of development such as fine motor skills and visual motor skills. Kids can then use the deep breathing coloring page as a coping strategy tool they have created and have ownership over.

How does this work?

These Deep Breathing Exercises are more than just working on breathing. Think about the following sensory systems that are activated using this free printable:

  • Deep breathing slows the heart rate
  • Visualizing the bus creates a distraction, or changes the learner’s focus
  • Listening to the sound of deep breathing can help tune out other stimuli
  • Counting breaths or holding for a number of seconds also creates a shift in focus
  • Themed breathing opens a door to change the subject and talk about the picture
  • Slowing the body down during the exercise, helps with regulation
  • Following a rhythm is organizing to the central nervous system

How to use the School Bus Deep Breathing Exercise Worksheet

Strategies such as breathing exercises are not as easy as handing your learner a piece of paper.  There is a lot of teaching, education, practice, and trial/error that goes into any of these treatment methods.

  • Initiate the activity BEFORE total meltdown or shut down occurs.  Once shut down occurs, it may not be easy for your learner to tolerate, listen, or sit and focus on this task
  • Use these exercises as part of your prescribed sensory diet, proving them at regular predictable intervals during the day, such as before/after transitions
  • Learner does not have to sit in a chair to work on deep breathing. They may lay on the floor, do yoga poses, climb under a blanket, sit in a rocker, or a comfy beanbag
  • If this exercise does not work for your learner, either try again at a different time, or move onto another strategy.  The OT Toolbox is full of ideas for self regulation

Thematic lesson or treatment planning is motivating for students, and a way for educators to organize their daily teaching. Back to school is a popular theme using school buses, school tools, and apples to get to know your students.  It is a great segue into the fall theme.

Other Back to School Activities from the OT Toolbox:

Free printable stress relaxation for the school bus

Want to add this printable stress relaxation tool to your therapy toolbox? Enter your email address into the form below.

This item is also available inside the Member’s Club. Members can log into their account and access the tool by heading to Mindfulness Tools. Grab this stress relaxation exercise as well as others including unicorn deep breathing, pencil deep breathing, rainbow breathing, and more.

FREE School Bus Deep Breathing Exercise

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    Victoria Wood

    Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

    How to do “Push In” Occupational Therapy

    occupational therapy collaboration

    Are you a new school based occupational therapist wondering how to implement a “push in” therapy service delivery model?  Perhaps you have been practicing for a while and are looking for some tips to transition your services from your therapy space to the classroom. For additional reading, the OT Toolbox has a comprehensive post on occupational therapy in school system.

    How to implement push in occupational therapy and push in therapy services in school based occupational therapy interventions.

    What is Push-in occupational therapy in schools?  

    Push in” services is a term used to describe school based occupational therapy services provided when students are participating in their natural environments. 

    At school, these environments can include the classroom, the cafeteria, the playground, or any other setting that a student accesses during the school day.  

    Push-in Occupational Therapy Services

    Changes in legislation with the addition of the No Child Left Behind law, began a shift in service delivery models for school-based occupationlal therapy over the last 20 years.  This shift has refocused school based therapists on inclusion, providing services in the natural environment.  

    While occupational therapy in schools has always had it’s fair share of challenges (schedules and caseloads to name a few), shifting our focus to providing therapy services in the student’s natural environment, is supported by research and highlights our strengths as occupational therapists.

    This challenge is a good change for related services.

    Change is hard, and some stakeholders might question a change to the way occupational therapy services are delivered in school, especially if it’s always been done a certain way.  We can rely on evidence, but what does it say about push in services in the school environment? 

    What are Push In therapy services? Wondering what push in occupational therapy looks like for the school-based OT? This resource explains how to implement OT services right in the classroom.

    Are push in services as effective as pull out?

    Yes! Push in services can be just as effective, or even more so, than pull out. Several studies (Reid et al, Villeneuve) have examined school-based services and the effectiveness of collaborative consultation. 

    Not only do students make progress at a faster rate, teachers and parents report improved satisfaction as well.  Many occupational therapists can probably relate to the experience of having a teacher ask you what “magic” you performed with a student while in a pull out therapy session. 

    One of the huge benefits of push in therapy, is doing that “magic”  in context so other educators can see it happening in real time!

    As a school based occupational therapist, it might feel easier or more effective to pull your students out of class into a controlled therapy room to provide intense one on one therapy.

    While your session might feel successful, it is not realistic. The difficulties your student is having is within the classroom, not the self contained therapy room.

    How do you make the shift from pull out to push in?  First, you need the support of your special education team – the parents, administrators, and teachers.  Get this support by teaching and showing them what you know, and the benefits of being in the classroom.

    It will take time to earn their trust, as you are seen as an intruder in their classroom.

    Conducting Observations during Push-In Therapy

    The first step is conducting observations of your students during the evaluation process.  These observations should take place across school environments where they are engaged in occupations and activities of daily living.  

    This can include the playground, cafeteria, mainstream class, special education, resource, art, computer, library, or all of the above.

    It is important to try to gather information from the teacher and parents to narrow your focus and understand their concerns, before deciding when and how to observe a student. 

    Depending on the areas of difficulty, you may need to observe transitions, work time, managing clothing at arrival/dismissal, the lunch routine in the cafeteria, or their ability to access the playground at recess.

    Push-in Services and Goals

    Once your evaluation is complete and you are recommending occupational therapy services in the natural environment to the team, how do you get teacher and parent buy-in?  This may take time, and more importantly, it will take data collection.  

    Here is a breakdown of the fine motor skills needed at school to help with your goals setting and data collection.

    One of the most important factors in success will be writing goals and objectives that are clear enough for anyone to observe the skills and collect data

    Clear, measurable, observable behaviors and/or skills need to be documented in your IEP goals.  It needs to be measurable, relevant, and doable!  

    Check out the SMART goals ladder worksheet on the OT Toolbox for information on creating goals.

    The OT Toolbox has a great resource available for Occupational Therapy documentation in the school setting.

    When educators feel empowered to carry out OT interventions, the success of the students will increase.  Additionally, when parents can easily observe skills at home, they will be more supportive of the therapy model. 

    When the skills being addressed are supported throughout the school day and at home, students have a much greater possibility of generalizing those skills across all environments. 

    OT Collaboration in the classroom

    As you begin to provide push in occupational therapy services for your students, it is important to collaborate with the team.

    While the Occupational Therapist provides services in the natural environment teachers and/or paraeducators can observe, ask questions, and get feedback from the therapist.  The entire team will be the ones implementing your interventions and collecting data when you are not there. 

    It is essential they feel confident in executing your interventions.

    Ways to build collaboration as a school-based OT:

    1. Set the tone through open and reciprocal communication that all members of the team are valued and equal. Get input from all members of the team including; teachers, paraeducators, parents, and the student.
    2. Provide modeling for staff.  Advocate to administrators it is critical for staff involved to observe you working with a student on their occupations.  
    3. Provide coaching to the educators implementing your plan.  Once you have been able to model for staff, spend time observing and coaching them while they are working with the student. We explain this in great detail in our blog post on executive function coaching.
    4. Make data collection easy and doable.  Develop simple, easy to use data collection forms that do not require time and/or effort to complete.  It could be as simple as a tally mark or checking a box on a chart.
    5. Check back in with the team frequently to monitor how it’s going and to make changes to the plan if needed.

    One final thought… keep the focus on participation and occupation! The team will see results and your students will find success.  Don’t be afraid to let your school community see the value occupational therapy adds to your student’s participation in school!

    Occupational therapy collaboration in the classroom handout

    Free OT Collaboration Handout

    Want a free printable handout explaining OT collaboration in the school environment? This is a useful tool for school-based occupational therapy practitioners to explain OT services in the educational model as a collaborative member of the team.

    Enter your email address into the form below, and the handout will be delivered to your inbox. Or, if you are an OT Toolbox Member’s Club member, log in and then head to Educational Handouts section of the membership. Not a member? Join today and access hundreds of free resources here on the website without having to enter your email address for each item. Plus gain new resources each month.

    FREE HANDOUT- Collaboration in the Classroom

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      Katherine Cook is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience primarily working in schools with students from preschool through Grade 12.  Katherine graduated from Boston University in 2001 and completed her Master’s degree and Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study at Tufts University in 2010.  Katherine’s school based experience includes working in integrated preschool programs, supporting students in the inclusion setting, as well as program development and providing consultation to students in substantially separate programs.  Katherine has a passion for fostering the play skills of children and supporting their occupations in school. 


      Reid, D., Chiu, T. Sinclair, G, Wehrmann, S., Naseer, Z. Outcomes of an occupational therapy school-based consultation service for students with fine motor difficulties. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy. 2006; 73: 215-224.

      Villeneuve M. A critical examination of school-based occupational therapy collaborative consultation. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy. 2009;76(1_suppl):206-218. 

      Add this handout to our other school resources:

      How to Meet Handwriting Goals

      carry over of handwriting goals in OT

      This blog post on meeting handwriting goals is an old one on the website, but it’s a handwriting resource that needed a re-vamp to get the much-needed information out there. One thing that comes up a lot as a school based OT is this: Handwriting goals are addressed in OT sessions but you don’t see the carry over of those goals into real life handwriting situations. This is a real handwriting problem! Let’s break down handwriting goals to improve carry over and how to ensure success with handwriting IEP goals!

      Reasons why kids can't carry over occupational therapy handwriting goals

      What is Handwriting Goal Carryover

      Handwriting carry over refers to the concept that the client working with an OT professional in therapy sessions can achieve skills in an isolated environment but are not able to carry over their new skills into the classroom, home, or community.

      Carry over of handwriting goals is getting the skills to “stick” when the student goes back to the classroom or writes at home.

      There is a lot to unpack here.

      Handwriting carry over is specific to handwriting skills, and the reason we are covering this in its own blog post is that this is an area where therapy professionals most often see carry over issues. OT professionals work with students on one of the most common areas in the school environment: handwriting. We address handwriting so often because it impacts learning in such a huge way.

      The other thing to consider is that handwriting skills are impacted and influenced by so many areas: sensorimotor, fine motor, gross motor, visual motor, executive functioning, etc.

      Handwriting practice is a boring task for most kids.  For the children who struggle with the underlying components of handwriting, practice is more than boring.  It’s numbing.  You can see it in the eyes of many kids who really hate handwriting practice.  They glaze over.  The child slouches down in their chair, and they go through the motions of writing practice.  

      And then what has been practiced is not carried over. We’ve covered so many handwriting problem areas on The OT Toolbox. You can find many resources under the handwriting tab at the top of the site.

      What does therapy carry over look like?

      To better understand this concept, let’s first cover what poor carry over over of handwriting skills looks like:

      The occupational therapist or occupational therapy assistant works with a student in an isolated setting. They work with their students one on one, or in a small group. The therapy session may occur in either a pull out model of therapy delivery or therapy services occur using a push-in occupational therapy model of delivery.

      In either situations, the student receives concentrated attention and focus on specific goal areas. Take a look at the handwriting goal examples listed below to better understand exactly how focused the therapy session can be.

      While carry over of therapy goal areas occur in essentially every goal area we address, handwriting is one of the most commented on. We notice when the therapy professional helps a student working on copying the alphabet and they can form each letter accurately, but then when they complete a similar task in the classroom environment outside of the therapy session, the handwriting results differ drastically.

      Another example of handwriting carry over is the student who can copy a list of words with accurate letter formation and line use. In the therapy session, the written work is very legible. But then, that same student immediately returns to the classroom and copies a list of vocabulary words only to show illegible written work with poor line use, poor spacing, and poor letter formation.

      Why Handwriting Goals are difficult to carry over into the classroom

      So a student does well in therapy sessions and the data shows the child IS ABLE to form letters accuratly, write on the lines, space between letters and words, and read their own writing. But what happens when those achievements don’t carry over to the classroom or the home?

      There are several things to consider when it comes to transferring occupational therapy goals into real life. Some of these contributions may include:

      • The handwriting goal is very specific (see goal examples below).
      • The child is working on a targeted area of handwriting without distraction.
      • The student has access to tools to support specific needs in the therapy session. This includes specialized adaptive paper, highlighted lines, positioning tools, etc.
      • The student feels confident with their therapist by their side, that they can make a mistake and if a mistake occurs, it’s not a big deal. It’s part of therapy.
      • The student has limited input of other contributing factors: classroom distractions, creative writing aspect, urgency to complete the writing task, etc.
      • In the classroom environment, handwriting speed is a major contributor. The timeline of the classroom needs to move along, so the student may feel the urgency to keep up with others.
      • Using specialized paper, pencil grips, handwriting positioners, etc. make the child feel “different” than their peers, so they revert to typical writing patterns rather than using tools that support written work.

      All of this can be frustrating….to the child, to the therapy professional, to the teacher, and to the parent.

      When the data shows the student has the capability to complete legible written work, and they have worked to strengthen underlying factors, and they have made progress on the goal areas, it is likely that the child can be discharged from therapy services.

      Discharge from therapy can be a difficult thing for some parents and teachers to hear.

      Therapy professionals have heard things like:

      • Why can’t you adjust the goal so the child can write legibly in all settings?
      • Why are you “giving up” on my child?
      • Why are you discharging therapy when the child can’t read their own writing?
      • And many other versions of this conversation!

      What to do when the Handwriting IEP Goals are Not being carried over

      The most important thing to remember is this: Occupational therapy is a support service in the schools. As such, OT professionals address goals that impact education. Therapy services occur at a level that, when handwriting is addressed (likely along with several other goals) for a time of 30 minutes per week.

      The child will not progress when only practicing handwriting skills for such a short period of time. And this does not mean that increasing therapy time will make that pivotal difference. Whether a child receives OT services 30, 60, 90, etc., min a week, or 30, 60, 90 minutes a month of consultation, the story is the same: if the child doesn’t practice these handwriting skills every day, carry over is unlikely.

      In order to see progression, and this is key, is that the child needs to practice skills throughout the day, at home, and each day.

      The difference between successful and legible handwriting in all settings and poor carry over of skills is practice. How do we encourage this consistent use of skills?

      • Practice daily
      • OT homework that the child consistently completes at home
      • Provide the teacher with suggestions to use for the classroom
      • If a resource aide is available, work with that individual to encourage consistent use of supports: verbal cues, visual cues, specialized paper, pencil grips, etc.
      • Work on “Small Wins”: When kids sit down to a writing assignment, they can get overwhelmed by the task ahead of them.  Then, they know the individual challenges that they are faced with: forming letters correctly, writing on lines, copying sentences without skipping letters, making a “b” and not a “d”, forming letters the correct size, not mixing upper and lower case letters, holding the pencil the right way, not writing too dark or too light, erasing all of the mistakes…it’s a minefield of mistakes waiting to happen!

      Work on small wins that can move a child toward a bigger goal.  Ask the child to just focus on getting words on the paper.  Another assignment can be only about writing on the lines.  Another task can be just about making the letters the right size.  Ask them to focus on just one thing.  Then, when they are done writing, ask them what strategies they used to get that particular part of handwriting legibility done.

      • Make a big deal about progress- Make small stars on handwriting that is legible, written on the lines, uses appropriate spacing, or meets other goals. Drawing attention to those small wins (even if there are other areas on the page where the handwriting lacked) can be a positive tool for kids who are working on handwriting.
      • Teach someone else- When we teach, we learn.  There is science backing the fact that when we teach something to someone else, it sticks better.  

      So use this strategy to get kids to notice the individual pieces of handwriting and teach them to another student (or the teacher!)

      1. Break the class down into groups of two.  
      2. One student can write and the other is the teacher.  They can “teach” how to write on the lines, how to erase mistakes completely, and how to make a straight left margin.  
      3. Sometimes that simple assessment helps to make strategies stick better.  
      4. Then, switch roles and the other students can become the handwriting teacher.
      • Make Good Handwriting Part of a Routine: How do we remember to drink 8 glasses of water a day? For some of us, that is a real challenge. For others, they’ve got this covered.  They have a routine of water guzzling ingrained in their day so much so that they can easily drink their required glasses of water. Have a cup of water on your desk at all times; make a schedule; make it part of your day! 
      • Make a visual schedule or checklist- So, how do kids make legible and proper handwriting just part of the process of writing? Use a personalized visual schedule for scheduling in handwriting practice time, or checklist to self-monitor handwriting.  
      • Make a DIY handwriting checklist- Some kids might have different items they need to monitor for legible written work. Maybe they need to make sure the tail letters drop down below the baseline. Write the particular handwriting concepts that each child needs to monitor on an index card and post it at their writing station. Laminate the index card and students can check off each item with a dry erase marker during writing tasks. 

      Kids can then look over their handwriting to make sure they’ve used proper formation, line awareness, spaces between words, and size of letters just right! Here is a printable handwriting self-checklist that you can print and use in the classroom. 

      • Technology and Typing- It these things are not working, it may be time to move onto technology as a means for written communication and/or modifications to requirements. Start a typing club for making this fun and engaging.
      Occupational therapy handwriting goals for IEP

      Handwriting Goal Examples

      When it comes to occupational therapy and handwriting IEP goals, the goals are very specific. This is because they are individualized based on the specific needs of the child. The therapist is addressing handwriting in an isolated environment (which occurs whether servicing the child in either the pull-out model or the push-in model of therapy).

      Poor transfer of occupational therapy goals can look like essentially any aspect of a handwriting goal.

      Below are examples of handwriting goals. These are listed so you can see how specific each goal can be. The data collected from a handwriting goal will show how the student has progressed from a baseline status.

      Focusing on these aspects of handwriting (copying from a model, tracing, writing upper case letters or lower case letters accurately, or focusing only on line use or spacing can help with carryover of handwriting goals into “real life”.

      Goals for Pre-writing Lines

      This goal is necessary for achieving the pre-writing skills required for forming letters and is typically a pre-kindergarten or kindergarten area of focus.

      By the end of the IEP cycle, ________ will form/copy/independently draw (select appropriate terminology) pre-writing lines: vertical lines, horizontal lines, circle, cross, square ________ times in 4 out of 5 treatment sessions with ________ assist with no more than ____ visual/verbal cues (circle or include one or both) to complete the task for increased visual motor/perceptual, graphomotor skills.

      Goals for letter formation

      Focus is on letter lines. Letter formation is a huge aspect of overall handwriting legibility. All letters can be collected into groups, or families, based on the lines that make up that letter. These letters include:

      • Straight line letters
      • Curved line letters
      • Diagonal line letters

      These letter groups can also be further broken down by size:

      • Uppercase letters
      • Lowercase letters

      Additionally, lowercase letters can be broken down into groups based on size:

      • Tall letters (letters that touch the top line: b, d, f, h, k, l, t)
      • Small letters (letters that do not go above the midline: a, c, e, i, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x, z)
      • Tail letters (letters with a “tail” that drops below the baseline: g, j, p, q, y)

      Finally, a group can be formed into cursive or print and then the cursive group can be sorted into uppercase/lowercase, size, and lines included in the letter:

      • Cursive letters
      • Print letters

      As you can see, there are a lot of ways to sort out letter formation goals and address each these areas. Goals can be really focused on when in isolation in therapy sessions, but when you put the whole picture together, there can be a struggle to carry over those goal successes into classroom or other real life handwriting tasks.

      Some examples of handwriting goals for letter formation include:

      By the end of the IEP cycle,_____________ will form/copy/independently write (select appropriate terminology) straight line/curved line/diagonal line (include letter line aspects or generalize to all upper case) capital letters/lower case letters (select appropriate format) ________ times in 4 out of 5 treatment sessions with ________ assist with no more than ____ visual/verbal cues (circle or include one or both) to complete the task for increased graphomotor skills while maintaining a tripod grasp.

      By the end of the IEP cycle, _____________ will form/copy/independently write (select appropriate terminology) lower case letters/upper case letters (select appropriate format) with good formation ________ times in 4 out of 5 treatment sessions with ________ assist with no more than ____ visual/verbal cues (circle or include one or both) to complete the task for increased graphomotor skills while maintaining a lack of thumb wrap.

      By the end of the IEP cycle, _____________ will form/copy/independently write (select appropriate terminology) lower case letters/upper case letters (select appropriate format) lower case letters using Handwriting Without Tears method (or other appropriate handwriting method) ________ times in 4 out of 5 treatment sessions with ________ assist with no more than ____ visual/verbal cues (circle or include one or both) to complete the task for increased graphomotor skills while maintaining an open web space.

      By the end of the IEP cycle, _____________ form/copy/independently write (select appropriate terminology) letters of the alphabet with 90%+ accuracy for correct letter formation ________ times in 4 out of 5 treatment sessions with ________ assist with no more than ____ visual/verbal cues (circle or include one or both) to complete the task for increased graphomotor skills and success in school setting.

      Handwriting IEP Goal for Writing Name

      Teaching kids to write their name is a big part of the daily school life and a goal area that OTs focus on for many students.

      By the end of the IEP cycle, _____________ will form/copy/independently write (select appropriate terminology) first and last name with (upper or upper and lower case letters) with/without model ________ times in 4 out of 5 treatment sessions with no more than ____ visual/verbal cues (circle or include one or both) to complete the task for increased graphomotor skills while maintaining a lack of thumb wrap.

      Handwriting goals for copying words and sentences

      Near point copy skills and far point copy skills impact handwriting legibility, missing words or letters when copying, and accuracy.

      By the end of the IEP cycle, _____________ will form/copy/independently write (select appropriate terminology) _____consecutive words/sentences with/without (select appropriate term) a model ________ times in 4 out of 5 treatment sessions with ________ assist with no more than ____ visual/verbal cues (circle or include one or both) to complete the task for increased graphomotor skills and success in school setting.

      By the end of the IEP cycle, _____________ will form/copy/independently write (select appropriate terminology) sentences using appropriate size and spacing ________ times in 4 out of 5 treatment sessions with ________ assist with no more than ____ visual/verbal cues (circle or include one or both) to complete the task for increased graphomotor skills while maintaining a tripod grasp.

      Handwriting goals for pencil grasp and pencil use

      Pencil grasp, and using controlled motions with the pencil, or pencil control, and accuracy of pencil use impact learning. This is one example of a pencil grasp goal that may be used.

      By the end of the IEP cycle, _____________ will hold a pencil with a tripod grasp for ___ minutes to improve hand strength and writing endurance in 4 out of 5 treatment sessions with no more than ____ visual/verbal cues (circle or include one or both) for increased graphomotor skills and success in school setting.

      Handwriting goal for Spatial awareness

      Spatial awareness in handwriting can impact carryover of handwriting skills.

      This is one example of a goal for spacing in written work:

      By the end of the IEP cycle, _____________ will form/copy/independently write (select appropriate terminology) (words/name/uppercase/lower case letters) with decreased/increased pressure on paper with adequate spacing with no more than ____ visual/verbal cues (circle or include one or both) to complete the task for increased graphomotor skills and success in school setting.

      Handwriting IEP Goal for Line awareness

      Line awareness includes writing on the lines and not having letters “float” above the lines. It also refers to placing letters accurately related to size of the letter and correct placement on the lines.

      Here is one line awareness goal that may be addressed and is commonly an issue with carryover of skill:

      By the end of the IEP cycle, _____________ will form/copy/independently write (select appropriate terminology) (words/name/uppercase/lower case letters) with 90%+ accuracy for correct letter placement on the lines ________ times in 4 out of 5 treatment sessions with ________ assist with no more than ____ visual/verbal cues (circle or include one or both) to complete the task for increased graphomotor skills and success in school setting.

      Handwriting goal for size awareness

      Size awareness in handwriting refers to sizing of letters. Sometimes letters are too large or too small and impact legibility. This can come into play when it comes to carrying over handwriting skills outside of the therapy session.

      This is one example of a goal for writing size:

      By the end of the IEP cycle, _____________ form/copy/independently write (select appropriate terminology) (words/name/uppercase/lower case letters) with 90%+ accuracy for correct letter size ________ times in 4 out of 5 treatment sessions with ________ assist with no more than ____ visual/verbal cues (circle or include one or both) to complete the task for increased graphomotor skills and success in school setting.

      A final note on handwriting goal carry over

      Carryover of handwriting skills practiced with the school based occupational therapist or in one-on-one time is most often, not carried over into classroom written work on in free writing tasks.  

      These handwriting activities are powerful ways to dazzle your students to using handwriting practices consistently.  They may not work for every child, but the trick is to find what works for individual kids and incorporate those strategies.

      So, how can carryover of the underlying skills be turned into consistent handwriting? Start by addressing handwriting issues with these quick handwriting fixes. Use the strategies we’ve covered here in this blog post. Practice. And practice some more!

      These lots of different ways to ensure carryover of handwriting goals and practiced skills into all writing tasks in and outside of the classroom.  

      What are your best tips for ensuring kids carryover concepts from therapy sessions into the classroom or homework?


      Use these strategies to help kids with carryover of handwriting skills learned in one-on-one practice or in OT intervention.


      Looking for help with specific handwriting concerns? Click on the images below to find tons of activities and strategies to help:

      Cursive handwriting activities for kids with handwriting problems.
      Kids will love these fun activities designed to improve pencil grasp and other handwriting problems.
      Activities designed to help with visual motor integration and handwriting problems in kids.
      These hands-on activities are helpful for many common handwriting problems that kids struggle with.
      Creative activities to work on line awareness in handwriting
      Tricks and tips for activities to help with spatial awareness handwriting activities
      Size awareness in handwriting activities for kids
      Pencil control activities are beneficial for improving handwriting legibility.
      Use these strategies to help kids with carryover of handwriting skills learned in one-on-one practice or in OT intervention.

      Looking for more specific ways to incorporate therapy tips and tricks into handwriting at home or in the classroom? Grab a copy of our Handwriting Book to work on consistent written work legibility:

      The Handwriting Book is a comprehensive resource created by experienced pediatric OTs and PTs.

      The Handwriting Book covers everything you need to know about handwriting, guided by development and focused on function. This digital resource is is the ultimate resource for tips, strategies, suggestions, and information to support handwriting development in kids.

      The Handwriting Book breaks down the functional skill of handwriting into developmental areas. These include developmental progression of pre-writing strokes, fine motor skills, gross motor development, sensory considerations, and visual perceptual skills. Each section includes strategies and tips to improve these underlying areas.

      • Strategies to address letter and number formation and reversals
      • Ideas for combining handwriting and play
      • Activities to practice handwriting skills at home
      • Tips and strategies for the reluctant writer
      • Tips to improve pencil grip
      • Tips for sizing, spacing, and alignment with overall improved legibility

      Click here to grab your copy of The Handwriting Book today.

      Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20+ years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to

      Supporting Student Strengths in the Classroom

      student strengths in the classroom

      When working with kids, we as professionals support students in many ways, but one of the most important ways to support kiddos is by highlighting individual student strengths in the classroom. We’ve all been there: feeling down about our own insecurities. That negativity impacts our mood, behavior, and the way we respond to others, including co-regulation. For kids that struggle with various areas, they may constantly be aware of how they are challenged to learn, make friends, participate in classroom activities. We as occupational therapy professionals can bring positivity and support through the simple act of highlighting the good. Our students on every ability level will thrive when using their strengths as meaningful motivation!

      Student strengths in the classroom to support learning and classroom tasks using student's personal strengths

      Here, we are talking about how to support students by identifying student strengths, understanding how to use those strengths to support the child, and how professionals can identify individual strengths for each student.

      Student Strengths in the Classroom

      School professionals and paraprofessionals do so much for our students, and it is not always easy. One way to bring some positivity to the classroom is to highlight all of the wonderful strengths you see.

      Student strengths in the classroom environment are obviously an important aspect of school performance. We all thrive when we feel we do something well. It makes us want to learn more about the topic. Doing a job or task well makes us want to achieve because we know we are good at that particular thing.

      We know that using a strengths-based approach works for Autistic learners, trauma-informed therapy interventions, specific diagnoses such as cerebral palsy, and essentially everyone!

      What Are Student Strengths

      Let’s start with defining exactly what are student strengths and how to facilitate functional skills and learning through the use of strength-based participation.

      Student strengths are exactly that; the strengths of the individual student! So often, we talk about the challenges a student has. We see the behaviors, the deficits, and weaknesses, and the diagnosis. These negative aspects are what the student is reprimanded on. It’s what makes them stand out (in the eyes of the student) and makes them different than their peers. But when we highlight strengths, we are shifting the focus to the positive.

      All students have strengths. Every one has interests, positive aspects, special skills, and abilities that make them unique. Student strengths are any personal trait that makes them who they are!

      When an individual’s personal strengths are highlighted, there is a ping of dopamine that offers feedback through the nervous system. There is a feeling of “good” that travels through the brain and body. This positive feedback can support regulation, mood, emotions, behavior, communication, and participation.

      When student strengths are highlighted in the classroom, students thrive.

      When student strengths in classrooms are highlighted, not only do individual students thrive in academic learning but in these other areas, but the whole classroom can be impacted too. The classroom can grow and develop together as a unit when they see that each student’s special skills and abilities play a role in their teamwork. Each student brings something special to the table and when these special skills are identified, students can empathize with more understanding.

      A student that struggles with attention and has physical behaviors or anger might be very talented at drawing. That special interest can be used to create a classroom poster that shows how we are all different, but all of us have some unique qualities that make us who we are as individuals.

      Simple wording that highlights the positive aspects of a student go much farther than the constant barrage of negative messaging. Our students pick up on this wording. So, when we put a positive spin on the terminology or ways we describe a child’s positive qualities, we are doing a benefit for not only the student, but the whole classroom’s view of the world around them.

      Highlighting student strengths can support teamwork and empathy. It develops individuals into leaders, teammates, and supports conflict resolution.

      Let’s take a closer look at student strengths…

      List of Student Strengths

      A child may be constantly in motion, but they can also be described as active or energetic. A student might be impulsive or take risks but they can also be described as adventurous or confident. Simply putting a different, positive spin on skills and abilities can make a difference.

      Some student strengths include:

      • Artistic
      • Accepting
      • Confident
      • Self-assured
      • High self-esteem
      • Friendly
      • Sociable
      • Outgoing
      • Creative
      • Imaginative
      • Capable
      • Insightful
      • Perceptive
      • Talented
      • Intellectual
      • Deep thinkers
      • Daring
      • Energetic
      • Honest
      • Friendly/Makes friends easily
      • Talkative
      • Articulate
      • Kind
      • Loving
      • Empathetic/Sensitive to the needs of others
      • Affectionate
      • Fun-loving
      • Active
      • Loyal
      • Determined
      • Organized
      • Resilient
      • Humble
      • Caring
      • Helpful
      • Introspective
      • Reserved
      • Thoughtful
      • Altruistic
      • Trusting
      • Modest
      • Affectionate
      • Warm
      • Sympathetic to others, including to strangers
      • Benevolent
      • Predictable
      • Thorough
      • Ambitious
      • Consistent
      • Grateful
      • Forgiving
      • Patient
      • Original
      • Innovative
      • Clever
      • Curious
      • Strong
      • Tactful
      • Brave
      • Calm
      • Optimistic
      • Funny/humorous
      • Polite
      • Loyal
      • Persistent
      • Conscientious
      • Self-disciplined
      • Leader
      • Reliable
      • Resourceful
      • Hard-working
      • Persevering
      • Controlled
      • Goal-oriented
      • Unselfish
      • Mindful
      • Amiable
      • Considerate
      • Happy/cheerful
      • Great interpersonal skills
      • Communicator
      • Critical Thinker
      • Problem Solver
      • Great at Public Speaking
      • Teamwork
      • Collaborator
      • Accountable
      • Active Listener
      • Adaptable
      • Decision-maker

      You can see how this list could go on and on…and on! Highlighting the positive aspects of students in the classroom is powerful!

      How to identify Student Strengths

      As student supporters – whatever role that may be – we should harness those individual strengths into greater achievement for all of our students.

      One easy way to identify strengths of an individual student is to think about each subject, unit, or specials class. How does the student behave in each?

      What is their engagement like in music versus physical education; math compared to reading? Maybe they are the first to raise their hand during social-emotional learning or cringe when they know writing time is next. No strength is too small; maybe they are not academically achieving in any traditional subject but are a leader on the playground or in the hallway. 

      Let’s say our student, Charlie, loves science class for the action. They show great strength in exploring and understanding scientific concepts. However, they hate writing because they never know what to say and are not confident in their penmanship yet. 

      As a supporter of this student, our role is to find ways to bring their favorite aspects of one subject into their least favorite. For example, Charlie really does cringe at the idea of writing, so I try to break that down. If they present with reduced fine motor or visual motor skills and therefore handwriting is a challenge, how can we use their strength in science to increase their writing skills? 

      The first thing that comes to mind is to intentionally and meaningfully include writing in the science lesson. It’s technically “science” time, but guess what: we are going to be strengthening fine motor skills with eyedroppers and writing the results of our experiment! 

      The best part about integrating one subject into another is that it is a universal approach – all children will benefit from combined learning! 

      How to Use Student Strengths as Motivation  

      We all know how difficult it can be to motivate students. My favorite word that correlates with motivation is ‘meaningful’. If you can make something meaningful to someone else, it becomes motivating. Using a student’s strengths is a great way to create meaningful learning. 

      One method to ease into meaningful learning is to make a list of preferred topics.

      We can use Charlie again here – you see that all of their folders are superhero-themed. They are always donning Super Mario or Minecraft and talking about their beloved cat during their free time.

      Taking the time to make a list of preferred topics for each of your students may take some time, but it will be so worthwhile! Make the list of ideas accessible to all those who work with this student, and most importantly, to the student themselves. 

      With a list of their favorite things in hand, Charlie always has preferred options of what to write about. Even when not writing, there is always the comfort of having meaningful subjects nearby. Better yet, they are from a teacher (or another supporter) who wants to connect with them – how cool is that? 

      This doesn’t always have to be simply based on what a student likes; if a student is a good leader, give them more autonomy or leadership roles to produce quality work. Or if a student is a strong speller, de-scrambling words as a part of the writing process could be motivating. 

      The just-right challenge is often most motivating: it is just easy or familiar enough to initiate a task (using our strengths)…but just hard enough to still learn, grow,  and feel accomplishment! 

      ENVIRONMENT: Student STRENGTHS in the Classroom Environment

      A person’s environment is a big deal to occupational therapists. We participate in functional tasks in so many different environments and those places impact function in a major way.

      One model of occupational therapy is called the Person-Environment-Occupation model and it is used in many different settings, including schools.

      This model is exactly what it sounds like; the combination of a unique person and all their traits, PLUS the environment they are in, PLUS the occupation that they are doing. All of this results in performance. The big picture here is that the environment plays a huge role in how well we perform. 

      Simply put, the Person/Environment/Occupation model breaks down who we are, where we are, and what we are doing.

      Unique person and all their traits + environment + occupation = performance 

      Simple equation using the Person-Environment-Occupation model used in occupational therapy to focus on occupational performance.

      When you take a look at this performance model, and consider the use of personal strengths to support successful performance, we can help individuals thrive. Adding personal strengths to the equation supports completion of the task, buy-in, motivation, and meaning.

      Strengths-based Classroom Environment-

      Thinking back to our example student from above, let’s go a bit further by using this model to look at how to add student strengths into occupation:

      What can we do to make Charlie’s environment optional based on their strengths and weaknesses? They are a great direction-follower and do not get distracted easily, so their seat may be best near peers that could use a positive role model. In addition to this, they have good eyesight so do not need to be placed at the front of the room. 

      Charlie’s room job is to turn on and off the lights, so the pathway should be clear and perhaps a seat close to the light switches may be nice. Charlie is very organized and that is apparent when you look at their desk area! 

      Because Charlie has reduced writing skills, placing their seat in view of the helpful visuals (wall dictionary or alphabet, grammar posters, etc.) will be important.

      To increase their engagement in writing, offer various pencils or erasers in a communal spot, and bring their love of drawing (a stone’s throw away from writing) into the classroom by offering time to decorate the classroom walls or their locker. 

      A final note on student strengths in the classroom

      Again, these recommendations are universal and can be applied to all students. There is a careful balance to be had, however, to make the environment optimal for students of varying needs and abilities. 

      Whenever possible, start with a student’s strengths. It can be so easy to fall into what is challenging about a student’s behaviors or grades, but dwelling on the negatives never produces many positive results. We hope to have given you a new outlook on student strengths and how to best integrate their use into day-to day school life! 

      List of student strengths in the classroom handout

      Free List of Student Strengths in the Classroom

      Would you like a printable list of student strengths in the classroom? Add this printable handout to your toolbox. Simply enter your email address into the form below to access this handout.

      Want to add this resource to your therapy toolbox so you can help kids thrive? Enter your email into the form below to access this printable tool.

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      FREE Handout: Student Strengths in the Classroom

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        Sydney Thorson, OTR/L, is a new occupational therapist working in school-based therapy. Her
        background is in Human Development and Family Studies, and she is passionate about
        providing individualized and meaningful treatment for each child and their family. Sydney is also
        a children’s author and illustrator and is always working on new and exciting projects.

        Star Wars Occupational Therapy Lightsaber

        star wars occupational therapy

        Today I have a fun Star Wars occupational therapy activity. This block light saber requires just one material, but you can use this Lightsaber for so many OT goals! We actually created this counting block light saber years ago (original blog post was written in 2015) for May 4th activities for occupational therapy. May the 4th be with you with this fine motor Star Wars activity!

        Star Wars occupational therapy activities for kids

        Star Wars occupational therapy

        Pediatric occupational therapy professionals know the power of using themes in OT therapy sessions. When we come up with a theme for fine motor, gross motor, visual motor, and sensory motor tasks, we can cover a wide range of OT goals while meeting the client (patient, student, etc.) where they are with a focus on their interests.

        Using interests in therapy fosters meaning and engagement.

        That’s where this Star Wars occupational therapy theme comes into play.

        How many children have you met that love all things Star Wars? When you bring up the topic of light sabers, Millennium Falcon, Chewbacca, and Luke, you may see a sparkle in the eyes of a child that could talk for hours on all things Star Wars. That’s when you know you have a great therapy theme on your hands.

        Using that Star Wars theme in therapy allows kids to focus on the tasks at hand, try new activities, and put themselves out there to try activities that might be just a little difficult on the range of “just right” tasks. The point here is to meet those goals but when working on goals is difficult, it can be easy to quit or give up. However, if there is a topic of interest that really sparks a light of engagement, then you have a tool to support goal development.

        This is when we see kids thrive!

        Let’s go over a few Star Wars occupational therapy activities focusing on fine motor skills, visual motor skills, gross motor skills, handwriting, and sensory play.

        Star Wars Fine Motor Activity- Build a Block Light Saber

        If your sons (and daughters) are anything like mine they love to make lightsabers out of anything.  Ever since they were introduced to Star Wars, the lightsaber is definitely a favorite in our house.  We built these blocks Star Wars lightsabers using counting blocks and wanted to share.  Because it sure is fun!

        The block light saber is a fine motor powerhouse. By snapping together the blocks, you’ll see:

        All of these fine motor skills are essential to functional tasks. Using the Star Wars theme adds a “4th” theme (force) that can’t be beat!

        Build a lightsaber using counting blocks or cubes for a Star Wars occupational therapy theme.

        How to Make a Star Wars Lightsaber with Blocks

        We are sharing affiliate links in this post.    

        To make build our lightsabers, we used one of our favorite toys; these snapping blocks are a toy that is used almost every day in our house.  From building robots to spaceships, and now lightsabers…we love these blocks.  They are great when used as a counting manipulative for preschoolers.  Other counting blocks could also be used.   

        Use math blocks or counting snap blocks to make a light saber for May 4th activities or a Star Wars OT theme.

        How to use this light saber in OT activities:

        Visual Motor Skills- Create a block light saber model. Ask the child to copy the light saber using pattern blocks or snap blocks. They can copy the colors and spacing of the blocks to work on visual motor skills.

        Other visual skills addressed with this activity include:

        • Visual scanning
        • Visual attention
        • Visual figure ground
        • Visual closure

        Gross Motor Skills- Use the light saber to copy gross motor movements and motor planning patterns. The therapist can make movements with a block light saber and the client can copy them. Work on adding a sequence of movement patterns to work on sequencing, balance, motor planning, and recall. You can use the light saber like a movement stick like we did with this cursive writing warm-up activity.   

        Other gross motor skills that are addressed with this Star Wars light saber therapy tool include:  

        • Crossing midline
        • Balance
        • sequencing
        • Motor planning
        • Visual tracking
        • Core strength and stability

        Handwriting- This is one way to use the blocks light saber that I really love. Once the light saber has been built, use it as a spacing tool to space between words!

        We’ve created a bunch of DIY spacing tools in the past: This light saber spacing tool joins the ranks of our popular space martian spacing tool, pipe cleaner spacing tool, craft stick and button spacing tool, and our craft stick (with a tracking dot) spacing tool.

        To use the light saber as a spacing tool, the child can build their light saber using the snapping blocks. Then, ask them to write sentences on paper or a dry erase board, focusing on copying or writing words accurately on the lines. Show the child how to place the light saber blocks between each word as a visual cue and a tactile support to add space after the words. When they are completed with writing the sentence, they will have words that are accurately and consistently spaced out, making handwriting legibility a breeze.

        Spatial awareness impacts handwriting legibility in big ways. The child can then recall using a light saber as their handwriting “force” each time they write, whether they have the actual light saber in hand or not. It’s a handwriting force that can’t be beat!

        Sensory Activities- By adding sensory play into therapy sessions, children can address self-regulation needs, sensory challenges, and play-based learning. Scatter the blocks in a sensory bin with scoops, tongs, and cups. You’ll need a sensory bin base material as well. The sensory materials offer a way to explore textures and create in therapy sessions.

        The student or child can find the needed items and then build their own light saber.

        This sensory Star Wars idea addresses various skill areas:

        • Tactile exploration
        • Sensory motor skills
        • Visual processing
        • Proprioception

        Build the lightsabers using a row of counting blocks.  Encourage your child to count out the blocks and match up the numbers when making a double lightsaber.  This is a fun way to encourage math through play and interests in Star Wars.  Have fun with your counting block lightsabers!  

        Add this activity to these other Star Wars occupational therapy activities:

        Star Wars Sensory Activities

        • Use Star Wars Moon Dough to encourage tactile hand sensory input, add heavy work through the hands with proprioceptive input.
        • Mix and make LEGO Star Wars Putty and develop tactile sensory challenges with bilateral coordination. Then address handwashing after playing.

        Star Wars Fine Motor

        • Incorporate bilateral coordination, hand strength, coloring skills, and heavy work through the hands to make this Crayon Resist Death Star.
        • Work on scissor skills, bilateral coordination, precision, glue use, and handwriting to make this Star Wars R2-D2 Craft. 
        • Incorporate wrist extension, fine motor precision, hand strength, grasp development, tool use, and scissor skills and Make a Toilet Paper Roll Yoda.
        • Address tripod grasp, neat precision grasp, separation of the sides of the hand, open thumb web space, eye hand coordination, and visual motor skills with this Star Wars Day Perler Bead Pattern.

        Star Wars Handwriting

        Use the light saber spacing tool above with these Star Wars handwriting ideas in occupational therapy sessions:

        • Incorporate letter formation, copying skills, line use, spatial awareness, and handwriting legibility in a functional and meaningful Star Wars craft using this May the Fourth Be With You Card.
        • Use these Star Wars Children’s Books to work on handwriting skills by asking kids to copy sentences from the books or to find specific letters in the book and then work on letter formation. They can even use the pictures as inspiration for creative writing with a Star Wars theme.

        Star Wars Executive Function Ideas

        All of the crafts and activities above involve aspects of executive functioning skills. Making a play dough or slime recipe involves planning, prioritization, and other EF skill work. Try this activity with your star Wars theme to add more executive function work to your occupational therapy session:

        • Make stop action creations and work on planning, prioritization, impulse control, task completion and other executive functioning skills. You’ll find inspiration in this  Star Wars stop action activity.  

        Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20+ years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to

        Autism Acceptance Month

        Autism acceptance

        April is Autism Acceptance Month! For school based therapists, the end of the school year is in sight.  But the start of Spring brings forth a chance for new beginnings and new growth, even as we start to wind down the school year.  Every April, we celebrate Occupational Therapy Month.  It is a chance for us to celebrate our profession, inspire each other to remember the reasons why we chose a career in occupational therapy, and to show the world the gifts we have to offer in supporting individuals with the things that matter the most! 

        Go for gold Autism acceptance month

        Autism Acceptance Month

        April is also Autism Acceptance Month. So, this is a perfect time to reflect on Occupational Therapy’s role in working with autistic individuals and how we can support neurodiversity acceptance in the places we work, with the clients and students we support, and in our world!

        Not only in April, but all year long is a great time to support, advocate for, and help others understand, embrace, and connect with the unique qualities of autistic individuals.

        Not sure where to start?  It can be overwhelming to take in all the information that comes at us each day through the news and social media, but occupational therapy practitioners can continue to do what we have always done…

        • listen to our clients and listen to the autistic voices that are in the media
        • use a strengths based approach
        • focus on environmental modifications
        • identify meaningful goals and work towards improving participation
        • use evidenced based practice
        • and advocate for our autistic clients

        We can also take a look at what we have done in the past and what we should look to do in the future.  Like the old saying goes, “When you know better, DO BETTER!”  So let’s take a look at what we know and what steps we can take to support neurodiversity.

        Autism Neurodiversity

        The prevalence of autism has significantly increased over the last 20 years, with the most drastic changes happening in the last 10 years.  Currently,  The CDC reports the prevalence of autism as 1 in 44 children in the United States.  It is the most rapidly growing developmental disorder and is more common in boys than girls.  

        Identity First Language

        Historically, occupational therapy practitioners were trained to use “person first” language, so you may have heard us say things like “my students with autism”.  Kenny, L. et al (2015) found that medical professionals, family members, and friends preferred using person first language.  However, autistics report that person first language doesn’t recognize that autism is part of their identity. 

        Although identity first language is preferred by many autistics, it is not the preference of all.  So, what can you do? 

        To know better and do better, you can ask the individual. You can ask and honor the preferences of your students.  You can educate yourself on the neurodiversity movement which suggests that brain differences can be challenges, but they can also be strengths.

        Going for gold in April instead of “lighting it up blue”

        Autism Speaks is the largest organization that claims to support autistic individuals and their families.  They are also probably the most widely known and started the campaign to “light it up blue”.  However, the work they have done to bring awareness to autism, has come with criticism from autistic adults for their focus on finding a cure. 

        Autistics are frustrated by the lack of representation within the Autism Speaks organization.  Much of the funding at Autism Speaks does not actually support autistic people. Most concerning is the lack of support for self-advocacy with a focus on the negative implications of living with autism.  

        Light it up Gold instead of Light it up Blue.

        The autistic community is trying to change the way we think about Autism awareness and acceptance.  While the color blue (seen as sad) or the puzzle piece symbol (seen as something is missing) has historically represented autism awareness, autistic adults have embraced using gold (whose chemical abbreviation is “Au”) to spread autism acceptance. 

        Gold is regarded as having high value and represents authenticity.  

        Here are some links to read more about promoting autism acceptance:

        How can we use this information to improve our practices?

        If you’re not sure what to do next, consider attending professional development opportunities or check out audiobooks for occupational therapists to learn how to support autistic clients and neurodivergent students. 

        As you grow in your knowledge, don’t forget that the domain and process of occupational therapy will continue to frame your work.  

        • Evaluate your students using a top-down, strengths based approach.  Use what we know about sensory preferences and visual supports to highlight the strengths of our autistic students.  Check out this resource: Sensory Strategies for the School Based OT.
        • Listen to your autistic students as individuals in order to develop meaningful outcomes.  What are their goals?  What aspects of school are important for them?
        • Support neurodiversity- Don’t forget to assess the environment and make modifications to support neurodiversity using Sensory Diet Strategies for the Classroom.
        • Promote and educate on neurodiversity- Expand our inclusive practices to educate and promote acceptance in the school community about autism and neurodiversity.  Perspective taking goes both ways.
        • Embrace interests of the individual. Find out what interesting, meaningful for a shared connection. Integrating interests into therapy is exactly what occupational therapy is!

        OT as an Autism Advocate

        Lastly, we must use our occupational therapy voices to advocate for autistic students and neurodivergent learners. 

        • Talk to the administrators at your school about inclusion, acceptance, and perspective taking amongst all students. 
        • Educate families with autistic children about resources and supports that are available to them. 
        • Start conversations with coworkers who may not be as familiar with current trends related to autism and neurodiversity. 
        • Most importantly, teach and support your autistic students to share their perspectives and self advocate for their needs. 

        Let’s honor autism and occupational therapy month by reflecting on the important work that we do and celebrate the amazing students we get to work with everyday!

        Kenny, L., Hattersley, C., Molins, B., Buckley, C., Povey, C. & Pellicano, E. (2015). Which terms should be used to describe autism? Perspectives from the UK Autism community. Autism: 1-21.

        Katherine Cook is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience primarily working in schools with students from preschool through Grade 12.  Katherine graduated from Boston University in 2001 and completed her Master’s degree and Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study at Tufts University in 2010.  Katherine’s school based experience includes working in integrated preschool programs, supporting students in the inclusion setting, as well as program development and providing consultation to students in substantially separate programs.  Katherine has a passion for fostering the play skills of children and supporting their occupations in school.