Episode 226 – Adapting to new COVID-19 procedures is especially challenging when working with young children. In this episode, Rebecca Reid, head therapist at Willow Occupational Therapy, shares practical tips that parents and educators can use to help children with things like wearing masks, increased hygiene routines, and social distancing while learning.
Don’t keep them in the dark about what’s happening. Kind of help them understand the situation to some extent. But talk about what COVID  is and what’s happening with society and the community and why things are different in a way so that they have the pieces of information to make that understanding.
Rebecca, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Hey, Ron, thanks for having me on!
Yeah. It’s our pleasure having you! Today on the show we are lucky to have Rebecca Reid. She is the founder and head therapist of Willow Occupational Therapy in Ontario, Canada. And she’s done some work on tips – practical tips and advice – for returning to school. There’s lots of challenges this year was COVID-19.
So, we’ll talk to her a little bit about what she’s seeing and hearing in that area and how folks are dealing with things like online learning, wearing masks for young children, which if you have tried doing that either at home or in your childcare programs you know is a challenge. So, Rebecca, welcome to the show. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you and what you do.
Awesome! Yeah, I like Ron said, my name is Rebecca. And I am the founder and head therapist at Willow Occupational Therapy, a practice that I created about four-and-a-half years ago based out of the GTA [greater Toronto area], based out of Toronto.
And I do have to make one comment before we start, is that, Ron, you picked me at a perfect time because October is actually Occupational Therapy Awareness Month. So, this is perfect, kind of we hit the nail on the head with one.
But going back to just myself: so, I started my educational route down at McGill University and I did a five-year concurrent program there to become a teacher. My focus there was physical education and special education. And by the end of that degree, I kind of had a better appreciation of kind of what OT [occupational therapy] was. I had an opportunity to get to work with some therapists at a really interesting school for kids with disabilities in Montreal. And I got kind of introduced the profession and then came completely obsessed.
So, I received my masters at Queen’s University, just down a step down [Highway] 401 and did my two-year Masters program there before continuing on to Toronto. And kind of between that time, I have lots of experience working with a wide range of kids and exceptionalities. So, anywhere from kind of teaching I like I did, tutoring with the Children’s Aid Society, camp counseling, you name it.
And I kind of landed my first career as an OT [occupational therapist] in Toronto at an alternative school for kids with mixed needs. And there I kind of got to dip my toe in the water as what it was like to be a full-fledged OT.
And then after a few years there, I knew I always wanted to start my own practice. So, I took the plunge and took the risk of going out on my own and have created a pretty awesome practice called Willow Occupational Therapy. And our main services are providing children, adolescents and young adults in the GTA area with OT services. So, assessment, intervention and consultation.
And kind of since the wonderful world has changed since springtime, the COVID-19 has kind of shifted our focus. So, we are now offering online, virtual services to all of Ontario as well. So, it’s been exciting and kind of a scary step for us. But it’s an amazing career path and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So, I guess that kind of sends us into what OT is because a lot of people ask me that question. That is the first thing they ask me when I tell them that I’m an occupational therapist. And it’s kind of the age-old question: “What is OT? Is it physio [therapy]?” And no, it is not physio. A common misconception of the OT is that we only work with people, experienced workspace or occupational challenges, which, by the name, makes sense.
But although there are definitely OT’s that do spend their time doing this with a lot of kind of return-to-work, vocational-focused services, that’s not what we all do. It’s a very holistic and wide reaching profession and it kind of goes far beyond that.
So, when we think of occupations, what we really mean is not just our job but instead the everyday activities that bring the meaning and purpose to our lives. So, for our clients at Willow OT – that being children, teenagers, young adults – that includes anything from going to school, playing with friends, getting dressed, eating breakfast, [etc.].
Put simply: we help individuals do the things that they want and need to do to live meaningful lives. So, it’s a very wide-reaching and broad spectrum of a profession but it serves a great purpose.
Interesting. And I suppose there’s probably been a lot of conversation about occupational therapy, especially this year. So, hopefully it’s getting even more awareness because, of course, with the global pandemic, lots of people’s everyday activities are changing. And there’s different perceptions and views on the purpose and meaning in our lives and what we’re doing. So, I think very relevant for 2020.
And I love how you define that in terms of everyday activities that bring purpose and meaning to our lives. And of course, when we’re talking about early-childhood education at that age, you don’t have a job. But you’re doing lots of things that are very meaningful for you as a child. And given that we’re right in the thick of the new school year, that has brought on a lot of new challenges.
So, let’s talk a little bit about that. And let’s start off with collaborating between educators and families. So, oftentimes this would be a face-to-face activity. And with social distancing, that becomes increasingly difficult. I know a lot of childcare programs, there’s very short windows to drop off your children and pick them up – intentionally spending less time around each other, frankly. So, how do we deal with that? What are some of the things you’re seeing and recommending from that perspective?
Yeah, absolutely. And the biggest thing about our profession that I always push – and I definitely can attest to this from being a teacher before a therapist – is that in order to see change and in order to see those improvements in progression, it has to be kind of a cohesive unit that’s working with the child.
So, one professional aspect is that you could put dump as much energy and as much work into doing something. But if it’s not kind of translated or reiterated with other people or stakeholders in that child’s life, it’s not going to have successful results. So, that’s one thing that I emphasize to all families that I’m working with, is that this is a collective, cohesive approach to things.
So, me sitting with your client or your child every week for the 45 minutes we have, you’re not going to necessarily see results from that. It has to be carried over to the everyday life of how it’s working and has to be integrated and changes have to be made. So now, especially, like you said, when those opportunities to collaborate with and just physical opportunities to meet and see other people are limited, you really kind of have to approach it different ways.
So, luckily, we live in a day and age where technology is massive. And I couldn’t imagine going through COVID-19 in the late 90s or the early 2000s when the Internet was still kind of up-and-coming. There was nothing like Zoom or Skype to connect us.
So, I think being creative and really utilizing the tools that we have out there – but mainly ensuring that we’re maintaining those relationships – is crucial, especially to see success and change with our clients and with our families.
And it’s a really isolating time. So, you kind of have to really push yourself to get out there and connect with those other people. And especially with school because now you’re used to maybe participating in your child’s class or going into their daycare room and knowing the staff that’s working there. And now that’s kind of taken away from you, for obvious reasons. So, trying to find ways to connect to those people and get a sense of what your child’s day is like is really, really important.
Yeah. And so we’re just a few weeks into the new school year and our return to school since COVID-19 hit us in the spring. Are there certain things that you’re noticing that are taking place with return-to-school and children’s learning and development that might help inform our decisions and approaches going forward?
Yeah, I guess so. Like, just in terms of being really open with people that are at school. There’s a lot of heightened anxiety right now – people are on edge as to what it’s going to look like. “Am I being safe? Is it going to end?” So, I think just making sure that the open lines of communication are there.
But also reflecting that in how you kind of hold yourself as a parent or a stakeholder because, as you guys know at HiMama and working with the population of kids, kids are very susceptible to reading situations. And they’re a lot more in tune with what’s going on than we give them credit for a lot of the time.
So, I think kind of when we’re on edge and not really sure where things are going, I think one of the best things is to kind of keep even-keel yourself. Be transparent and use really basic language about what’s happening, that changes might happen. But that kind of, “We’re going to be okay and there’s going to be some way out of it.”
But yeah, I think with all of these new changes going on, I think kind of just trying to keep as much normalcy in your life as possible is great. So, keeping those kind of routines in the morning of getting up, brushing your teeth, having breakfast together, even if you’re at school or you kind of are now back doing online learning, trying to keep those kind of routines, procedures intact. Otherwise, kind of everyone’s head kind of goes a bit sour.
So, I think that’s kind of a good way to approach things. But like I said, with COVID it’s kind of an unprecedented time. No one’s really dealt with these kind of barriers and dilemmas before. So, everyone’s doing their best. But I think we have to kind of work as a unit to get things done.
Yeah, and our listeners definitely know what that is all about. And the other thing that we talk about often on the Preschool Podcast – and which we know is so important in terms of education – is that every child is unique and has individual needs and learning styles and interests. How do we deal with that in this new environment? Because I imagine it’s a little bit harder to do, versus when we were in the classroom and social distancing wasn’t a thing.
Yeah, absolutely. So, it’s hard because you typically get a wide range of things at school. And I know some kids are at school right now and able to kind of have that normal or regular school day routine and the activities that you might do.
But when you’re kind of stripped of some of those core things, like the social interactions and some of the other activities you might be getting at school like recess or phys-ed [physical education] or arts-and-crafts, and you’re at home trying to mimic the same things, you kind of lose a lot of that mixed curricular-type learning. So, parents kind of have to be superheroes at this stage and kind of advocate for their own kids and know what their kids are doing. Because as much as I know teachers are doing their very best – and I can’t even imagine what it’d be like to be a teacher right now, trying to juggle every aspect of what’s going on in terms of preparing online lessons and in-class lessons and making a class of Grade One [students] not touch each other.
So, I think here it’s kind of parents and guardians and other key stakeholders, [it’s] really their time to kind of pull up the boots and say, “You know what? My kid is getting maybe some of what they need at school, but it might need to be supplemented to meet those unique needs or supplemented by getting some extra help, getting an extra tutor, looking into services like occupational therapy or speech language or behavioral therapy to really hone in on some of those things because they might not get the attention that they would typically get if they’re at a school all day.”
So, unfortunately, yeah, we kind of have to think about it in a different way. But know also that a lot of these services are out there and willing to help right now. And a lot of us have really changed the way that we’re practicing to try and make it as easy on families to do so.
One thing in particular that we’ve done with Willow OT is obviously 100% of our clientele before was face-to-face. And we had to kind of think on our feet and figure out how pivoting to a digital platform was going to work and be efficient and effective with a lot of these kids that otherwise would only focus when you were sitting one-on-one with them.
And with a lot of kind of work and practice we kind of came up with some methods of how to best do that. So, working on kind of grading activities or pacing different activities, the length of how we integrate things. And then also sending home what we call the OT At Home Kits. So, every client that we work with gets sent an additional baggage of materials and tools that they can use to guide through the sessions.
And they’re each tailored to the specific needs, like you said, of the child. So, little strategies like that can work to kind of fill the void of what they might be missing from a typical day at school or the services that they might otherwise be getting outside of the home.
Cool, good tips. And speaking of tips, can you tell us a little bit about practical tips for helping your child become comfortable wearing a mask, whether that’s at home or in the childcare program? This is a really fun thing that I think a lot of us are dealing with right now. I have a three-year-old and I have had my challenges with that, for sure.
Yeah, I remember when kind of the news briefings came on and they were explaining the age groups that they wanted kids to be wearing masks. And I remember at one time it was something like at [age] six and then it went lower and lower. And it’s like, “Oh, jeez, this is going to be a whole feat in itself.”
So, that’s kind of when we were kind of working through what blog articles to talk about. We kind of discussed that, “You know what? We’re getting so many questions about this from our families and our clients. Why don’t we make a little blog article to discuss some easygoing things that might actually help make it a bit smoother?”
So, kind of a first tip I have here is, just practice, practice, practice. I kind of always use the analogy of… and obviously, if you’re wearing a mask, it’s going to be awkward for everybody. Adjusting to that weird change is covering up the majority of your face.
And I always kind of use the analogy, “The more you get used to it, the less you notice it.” So, kind of like if you have glasses and you wear glasses for the first time, that’s all you can think about. You’re thinking and staring at them the whole day. Whereas over time you become more comfortable and you kind of forget they’re even on your face.
So, the more opportunities you have to wear them, even if it’s around your house, that’s great. And if you’re kind of looking for those opportunities at home to ease into, I would recommend trying to pick high-interest, high-preferred activities. So, if your child really enjoys using [a digital tablet] or watching TV, suggest that maybe they wear their mask for that because that kind of high-interest activity is going to distract them from the fact that it’s on their face and they’ll be more enticed to try and use it in practice.
Other things that’s kind of getting them used to what it’s like to have something covering your face: So, if it’s a really young child, kind of preschool-age, try practicing games like peekaboo where you’re putting cloths or scarf on the face and getting them accustomed to what that feels like, what the difference, what the touch feels like to cover up the nose and the face.
Often another great one is, lead by example. If you want your kid to wear a mask, you should be wearing a mask, too. So, kind of as we mentioned before, kids learn by seeing modeled behavior. So, if you’re doing it and you’re setting good examples, they’re more likely to do that, as well. So kind of practice what you preach, I guess.
Again, looking from kind of a sensory processing lens of OT: fabrics and types of textures of fabric. So, if you have a kid who maybe gets super hot or something and is noticing you have super-thick fabrics mask, they’re going to have a lot more difficulties with that and notice it a lot more.
So, you can look at different thicknesses of fabrics or different ways it attaches. So, some kids might have sensitivities to straps looping over their ears. So, you could look at masks that have ties that go around the neck and the head; or looking into face shields; or different ways for a scarf; or kind of the neck gaiters that kind of pull up like neck warmers. There’s lots of ways.
And kind of just let them know that this is why we’re wearing it. So educate them as to what a mask does and why it’s important to be wearing. But also let them know that it’s okay to have a break from a mask. So, teaching them opportunities to ask to go maybe to the washroom at school if they’re at school and sit and take the mask off for a second.
Or learn how to do kind of calming, breathing activities to kind of take their mind off the fact that they’ve been wearing this for a few hours.
And ultimately, make it fun. Let them pick designs or design your own mask and work it into kind of like a back-to-school fashion. I know that seems a bit ridiculous, but the more the kid buys in or the more the child buys in to it, then the more interested they’ll be in general.
Yeah, that’s what I thought was cool, too. And I’ve seen some classrooms, all the children had a different mask on, which helps express their interests or their individuality. And I know my child is super into animals. So, if we had an animal mask for him, I’m sure he would be much, much more inclined to do that versus just sort of like a blue-and-white medical mask or whatever.
Yeah, exactly, exactly. And then there’s always the question that comes up a lot is that, “My kid loses their mask all of the time.” And one thing that we did find useful that actually one family in particular mentioned was kind of clipping it to a lanyard or kind of those old school glasses holders that kind of old grannies would wear all the time that they could drop their glasses down, just as a way so that’s that it’s not getting lost. Because custom masks are not the cheapest things these days. They’re kind of a hot commodity, I would have to say.
Yeah, I never thought about that, but I’m sure that is a pretty common issue already in schools. Wonderful, some good tips there, Rebecca, thanks. And before we wrap up, any sort of final words of advice for everybody out there that’s working with children during this global pandemic?
I think it’s just… you kind of have to be transparent about things because, like I aforementioned, kids get a good sense of what’s going on and they are really good at reading situations. So, don’t keep them in the dark about what’s happening. Kind of help them understand the situation to some extent. And obviously, the age of the child is really dependent on that.
But talk about what COVID is and what’s happening with society and the community and why things are different in a way so that they have the pieces of information to make that understanding. And like I said, there’s a lot of good resources out there, like Health Canada. Ontario Health also has a bunch of kind of workbooks or visual representations. If you’re not sure how to approach the topic with your child, maybe use one of these things to kind of walk through it. It talks about kind of why we’re doing it, precautions we are taking.
But just kind of like be supportive. It’s a scary time for all of us and sometimes your kids maybe just need a bit more support than they typically would. Everyone’s kind of on edge and no one knows what the next few months or years will look like. So, I think kind of just being supportive, being there to hear and listen to your kids.
But don’t just keep them in the dark. I think it’s important that they’re learning and understanding what it is because otherwise they might be getting information elsewhere that’s not accurate and might be more scary than what actually is going on.
Again, other big things to kind of keep everybody sane is, whether you’re at school or whether you’re at home – it’s a whole mix of everybody’s either kind of living on one dining room table at once – try and work routines and procedures into your day for everybody. I think kind of maintaining a morning routine, a lunch routine, a dinner routine kind of helps pass the days but also helps keep you sane. So, keeping track of the days, doing different things on weekends, those kinds of things. And yeah, and I think just trying to be as safe as general, as well.
Wonderful. Yes, the routine, routine, routine – our early-childhood educators, definitely that will resonate with them, super important. And the transparency point totally makes sense, too. Like you said, this is something that’s going to be with us for some time. What that looks like, we don’t know. So, we might as well have those conversations and just be transparent about what’s happening. All age-appropriate, of course, but all totally makes sense.
For our listeners who want to get in touch with you or learn more about occupational therapy or Willow Occupational Therapy, where can they go to get more information?
So, you can check out our website at www.WillowOT.com. That has all of our information about services and fees and all of our blog articles. We also have pretty active social media as well. So, on Instagram it’s @Willow.OT. We have a good Facebook page, as well. So, lots of kind of helpful tips, similar to kind of what I went over today. Not just all COVID-related but things of fine motor [skills], growth motor [skills] – anything falling in the realm of OT, we’ve got it. So, I’m happy to chat and e-mail with any questions or concerns anyone has or discuss any services that might be relevant.
Awesome. Thanks so much for sharing, Rebecca, both how we can get in touch with you at www.WillowOT.com, as well as all this advice related to dealing with children and all the complications that COVID-19 brings with that in 2020. Wonderful having you as a guest on our show. Thanks so much for joining us!
Alright, thanks so much, Ron!