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How OT Practitioners Address Behavior Through supporting School Staff

As occupational therapy practitioners in the school setting, we don't just work directly with the students. Often, we find ourselves working on behalf of the students by supporting teachers and paraprofessionals. This happens frequently when teachers and paraprofessionals are faced with the challenge of managing difficult behaviors in their students.

Managing difficult behaviors can be a daunting task, but as experts in the areas of functional behavior, sensory integration, and motor skills, we can provide valuable support and resources to help teachers and paraprofessionals succeed in this aspect of their job.

Below, I have compiled four sets of strategies and techniques that occupational therapy practitioners like us can use to support teachers and paraprofessionals who work with children who demonstrate difficult behaviors.

Each of these strategies can be used to support an individual student, but the nice part is that most of them can be used in a tiered intervention program to support teachers before behaviors may present in a classroom.

Let's dive in.

Want to earn professional development & be part of a supportive school-based occupational therapy community?

Join us in the OT Schoolhouse Collaborative, where you can earn AOTA-Approved professional development and get individualized support from Jayson and other school-based OT practitioners.


Promote Sensory Modulation

Surprise! Sensory made the list!

Sensory modulation is an area where occupational therapy practitioners can provide valuable support and resources to teachers and paraprofessionals. By identifying and addressing sensory concerns that may be contributing to difficult behaviors, we can help students feel more comfortable and confident in the classroom.

For example, if a student has difficulty modulating sensory input, you could support the teachers by sharing with them what to look for. Programs like the Zones of Regulation or the Alert Program are as much about providing adults with an understanding of behavior as it is about teaching students to understand their own feelings.

One thing I have created in the past is an individual sensory preference sheet for students. It was essentially a "When you notice a student ______ , try one of these sensory strategies" chart.

On the chart, I would identify what a teacher or paraprofessional may observe when a student is presenting as under, over, or within an optimal learning arousal level. I never liked time-based sensory diets, so this was my slight adaptation to that.

Some things you may recommend based on what the student directly or indirectly communicates to the teacher could include providing sensory breaks, using pressure vests, or incorporating sensory-based activities into the curriculum.

The example I provided was geared more toward an individualized program, but this could also work for an entire classroom. How great would it be for a class of students to identify their sensory level at the moment and decide on an appropriate follow-up activity?

Incorporate Mindfulness Techniques

Mindfulness techniques can also be a powerful tool for managing difficult behaviors and promoting emotional regulation in students.

As occupational therapy practitioners, we can work with teachers and paraprofessionals to incorporate mindfulness practices into their daily routines and behavior management plans. Trust me. It wouldn't just be the kids that benefit from some mindful activities in the classroom.

Now I wouldn't exactly say that incorporating mindful strategies into classrooms is my strong point, but Danielle Delorenzo and My Bui-Lewis at Mindulnes in mOTion are all about this.

Danielle and My are occupational therapists turned educational consultants and they work with districts to develop mindful programs in schools. Some of the strategies they teach include breathing techniques, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation exercises that students can use to calm themselves when they feel overwhelmed or stressed.

By incorporating mindfulness techniques into the classroom environment, we can help students (and adults) develop greater self-awareness, emotional regulation, and overall well-being.


Want to learn more about supporting behaviors using a Mindful Approach?

Join us in the OT Schoolhouse Collaborative, where Danielle and My will be presenting on March 23, 2023

Watch it live, or catch the replay.


Develop Individualized Behavior Plans

Oh wait... Did you think only Psychologists and ABA therapists could develop behavior plans?

Absolutely not.

One of the most effective ways to manage difficult behaviors is to develop individualized behavior plans that are tailored to each student's specific needs and challenges.

Unfortunately, behavior plans have become synonymous with discrete trial training and taking ABC data without considering other student factors.

As OTs, not only can we work with teachers and paraprofessionals to identify triggers and antecedents that are possibly leading to challenging behaviors, but we can also identify other factors like task demands, the environment, the people involved, the emotional status of the student, and more.

Behavior is not as simple as an IFTTT (If This, Then That) computer application. Behavior is dynamic and requires the keen eye of an OT practitioner who can analyze the task with various frameworks in mind.

By developing individualized behavior plans that take into account the unique needs and challenges of each student, we can help teachers and paraprofessionals effectively manage difficult behaviors and create a positive learning environment.

Provide Training and Education

Finally, occupational therapy practitioners can provide training and education to teachers and paraprofessionals on best practices for behavior management and sensory modulation.

I've said it a million times and will say it a million times more.

OT practitioners need to conduct more trainings for teachers at their school sites!

By sharing our expertise and knowledge, we can help build the capacity of the entire school community to effectively manage difficult behaviors and promote positive learning outcomes for all students. And not only that, but you will also become more ingrained in your school culture by becoming more involved! This will give co-workers an opportunity to learn your name and how awesome you are at supporting students!

If you are new to providing inservices for colleagues, start small.

I first started supporting teachers by meeting with one special education teacher. That turned into a meeting with one general education teacher, which then grew to a meeting with the "first-grade team"

The next thing I knew, I was being asked to speak to entire schools, parent-teacher associations, and special education staff. When you start small, you get to "grow in" to and learn how to present to the larger groups where you can have even more impact.

And now, it is easier than ever to create a video that can be shared with an entire district. So team up with another OT or a school psychologist and put a piece of training together.

You'll be surprised by the impact you can have.

The Final Word

As occupational therapy practitioners, we have a unique set of skills and expertise that can be invaluable in supporting teachers and paraprofessionals who work with children who demonstrate difficult behaviors. By developing individualized behavior plans, incorporating mindfulness techniques, promoting sensory modulation, and providing training and education, we can help create a positive and supportive learning environment for all students and maybe even remove some stress from the teachers. And they can really use some of that right about now.


  1. American Occupational Therapy Association. (2020). Occupational Therapy Practice Framework: Domain and Process (4th ed.). American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 74(Suppl. 2), 7412410010.

  2. Dunn, W. (2007). Supporting Children to Participate Successfully in Everyday Life by Using Sensory Processing Knowledge. Infants & Young Children, 20(2), 84–101.

  3. Perrier, MF., Gurgel-Juarez, N., Flowers, H.L. et al. Mindfulness-based interventions for children and adolescents across all settings: a scoping review protocol. Syst Rev 9, 286 (2020).

  4. Watling, Renee, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA; Miller Kuhaneck, Heather, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA; Parham, L. Diane, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA; Schaaf, Roseann C., PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA. (2018). Occupational Therapy Practice Guidelines for Children and Adolescents with Challenges in Sensory Processing and Sensory Integration. Bethesda, MD: AOTA Press.


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