How Occupational Therapy helps kids to heal from trauma


What is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational Therapy aims is to enable children and young people to participate in the activities of everyday life that bring meaning and purpose to them. These include movement skills, play skills, and many of the skills needed for school readiness.

Occupational Therapy (OT) is a mix of science, creativity and compassion.  Occupational therapists work with children, young people, their families and their communities to enhance their ability to engage in the activities that they want to, need to, or are expected to do, or by modifying the activities or the environment to allow for better engagement and participation.

How does Occupational Therapy help kids to heal from trauma?

Children who have experienced trauma need environments and opportunities to regain a sense of personal safety, competence, and pleasurable connection to others. An Occupational Therapist’s first purpose is to facilitate these environments and opportunities as a foundation for learning, skill development and healing.

Once this foundation has been built, occupational therapy facilitates children’s participation in meaningful activities.

“We use meaningful activities to promote physical and mental health and well-being,” says Act for Kids Clinical Service Manager and Occupational Therapist Angela Tieman. “Occupational therapists focus on occupation – and by this I don’t mean jobs or careers, but activities that occupy children’s time.”

For children, these occupations include everyday tasks like play and leisure, social activities, activities of daily living (for example eating, dressing and hygiene), instrumental (for example preparing or cleaning up meals, caring for pets), sleep, rest and school based learning.


How is Occupational Therapy delivered?

The types of activities children will encounter in a session vary greatly and is tailored to each child and family’s needs and therapy goals. They may include a combination of gross motor skills such as pushing, pulling, jumping or crawling, and fine motor skills such as drawing, playing with puzzles, manipulating clay or play-doh or using tweezers.

“During our sessions we employ a play-based approach to engage children in a range of sensory-based activities to aid their sensory and emotional regulation,” says Angela. “This is most powerful when we work in partnership with the child’s primary attachment figure to ensure that the strategies we use during therapy can also carry across to the home environment.”


OT requires a community approach:

Occupational therapists often work very closely with school and kinder staff to adapt the school environment to meet the learning needs of children and to support staff to differentiate learning tasks to meet the developmental need of the child. For example, supporting staff to set up a cosy corner or safe space a child can retreat to when they begin to feel overwhelmed by the noise or visual input in the classroom. In this space, the child usually has access to things that help them to feel calmer. For example, some headphones to dampen down noise.

“Trauma in children can overstimulate their fight or flight response and lead to a state of hyper-arousal,” says Angela. “Children might be unable to sit still and focus on the teachers instructions. In this situations, the goal of occupational therapy may be to support their regulation to enable them to sit for a period of time to enable more successful participation in school based learning. Activities which involve active proprioception (climbing, crawling and hanging from monkey bars), deep pressure touch and linear movement (jumping on a trampette and crashing onto a pile of cushions help these children shift from being in the survival strategy of fight or flight to a calmer state.”


Why is OT important?

“If children feel safe, they can take risks, ask questions, learn new things, make mistakes, learn to trust, share their feelings, process their trauma, and grow,” says Angela. “In joint sessions with speech pathology or counselling, an occupational therapist is able to facilitate the child’s engagement in sensory-motor activities to support regulation. This enables the child to engage in higher-level cortical tasks required in speech pathology or talking therapies such as counselling.”

By creating a safe environment and helping children to regulate their nervous system, occupational therapy helps support children to engage in other forms of therapy, such as speech pathology and counselling or psychology.

How do you know whether your child needs help from an Occupational Therapist?

A therapist will assess a child’s ability to do everyday activities such as sitting, holding a pencil, or picking up things and look at any challenges they may face. Occupational Therapy supports someone to grow confidence so that they can feel empowered and enabled to participate in daily activities.

Occupational Therapy at Act for Kids

At Act for Kids, Occupational Therapy forms part of our Integrated Therapy Service. The Integrated Therapy Service (ITS) is a therapeutic service for children, young people, their families and/or carers who have behavioural, emotional and/or developmental difficulties due to trauma from abuse and neglect or who are at risk of harm. A full integrated team comprises of speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and psychologists.

Our Integrated Therapy teams work together and use their combined skills to look at different aspects of the development and general functioning of each child and their family, including the role of their relationships and experiences.  We help children and young people to overcome their experiences and challenges through integrated therapy so they can reach their full potential.

Our team of specialists work together to conduct a full assessment, develop a personal treatment plan and provide ongoing therapeutic support.

Last year

over 48,000

cases of child abuse were confirmed


11 Minutes

another child suffers abuse or neglect


29,000 kids

accessed therapy services with Act for Kids



If you’re a parent and need support there are a lot of services available to help with a variety of different issues, from budgeting to managing difficult behaviour. Many of these services are provided free of charge from organisations like Act for Kids.



Sometimes parents just need to let out some of their stress and feelings, don’t judge them or interrupt, show genuine interest in how they feel. If you’re worried about them suggest they could also talk to their doctor, a counsellor or a parent helpline.



Take the time to listen to the kids you know, engage with them and build relationships. It’s important for kids to have several safe people in their lives, not just their parents.



If you’re a parent, connect with the other parents you know through school or sport/hobby groups. They share the same challenges, offer support and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Offer Help

Offer Help

Offer help if you see parents struggling, it can make a big difference. You can also make some quick enquiries about free support in your local area, perhaps there’s a free class at the PCYC that you can suggest for your neighbour’s kids so they learn something new, burn some energy, make friends and their parents get a break.



Local authorities can link families to support services to help them address any issues that might be causing stress and compromising the safety and wellbeing of their children. If you don’t speak up, who will? You can remain anonymous and you could be the person who makes a real difference to a child’s life.