Unlock Your Child’s Full Potential

10 Easy, Empowering Tips from an Occupational Therapist

By Katie Zimbaluk, MS, OTR/L, M.Ed.

As a pediatric occupational therapist and teacher, it has been my job to help children overcome challenges and develop confidence and achieve goals.. With experience working with children of all ages in clinical and school settings, coupled with the insights I’ve gained as a mother, I am eager to share these 10 tips to help unlock your child’s full potential.

1. Create a “Just Right” Challenge

Remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Goldilocks was trying to find the bed and porridge that was “just right.” The same idea rings true for children when we have them complete a task. We don’t want to set a child up for failure by making the task too difficult, and we don’t want the task to be too easy so that they aren’t challenged and become bored. You can make a task more challenging by adding an extra step or asking questions. For reading tasks, you can increase reading time expectations or have your child answer specific questions, such as: Who is the main character? Where does the story take place? What is the plot? What problem does the character have? How does the character solve their problem? These questions help to open the dialogue about the story and increase critical thinking skills.

2. Tailor Activities to Your Child’s Interests

A child will be more engaged when working on an activity or reading a story they are interested in. Take a moment to think about your child and how to best incorporate their interests in daily tasks. For example, if your child is into dinosaurs but it is a fight to do their math homework each night, then perhaps have them count toy dinosaur eggs or dinosaur figurines instead. For reading, bring your child with you to the library or look at book titles together online that they can select. This can help to foster a sense of autonomy, which helps set the stage for success.

3. Provide Choices

Providing a choice to a child can be quite powerful and later help to prevent refusals or meltdowns. For younger children, provide no more than two items to choose from. For older children, you may provide more choices but try to keep it simple. Providing a choice can help the child feel in control and become more receptive to participating in the activity.

4. Create a Supportive and Nourishing Environment

Creating an environment that is comfortable, organized, and encourages exploration can help contribute to your child’s success. When a space is cluttered and visually overwhelming, this can create a distraction, which in turn can cause noticeable behaviors in your child down the road. Ensure spaces are decluttered, organized, sensory-friendly, and offer opportunities to explore various activities. Rotate your child’s toys and books to encourage engagement and new opportunities for play. For reading, create a “book nook” in a corner of your home where it is quiet and free from distractions. You can easily set up a comfortable space with some pillows, a reading lamp, and a few favorite books. Creating designated areas in your home, such as a “book nook,” can help to prevent distractions and create a calm environment for reading activities.

5. Provide Sensory Strategies Prior to Reading or Tabletop Tasks

We all have our own sensory needs and respond differently to sensory input. However, if you are finding it difficult to settle down your child for tabletop tasks like homework or reading, you can try a few calming strategies to help get their body ready for the activity. Try offering a stress ball, theraputty, or other small fidget tools which may seem appealing to your child. Touching or manipulating objects helps to organize the neural pathways for better focus. You can also try providing some deep pressure to help calm the nervous system by giving your child pillow squishes or a weighted lap pad. If you need help with increasing alertness (for example, your child is sitting and doing their homework for a lengthy period), be sure to provide movement breaks or break the activity up so they are not sitting for long periods of time. Children simply can’t and shouldn’t be sitting for extended periods of time. Make sure to follow your child’s cues and stop any sensory input if they do not care for it or do not respond well.

6. Leverage Assistive Technology (in Moderation)

In a world surrounded by technology, there can be advantages to utilizing certain programs and apps. Technology can be used as a tool for learning and independence if correctly used. Explore assistive devices and apps that cater to specific needs and promote engagement. There are many educational and learning-to-read apps available that foster engagement and a motivation to learn. If your child is becoming bored with reading the same books or is demonstrating a lack of motivation with reading, try YouTube for a read-aloud story. A read-aloud story might raise your child’s interest in exploring the book on their own, therefore serving as a powerful motivator to add to their personal library. Be sure to monitor technology use and limit the total amount of time spent on technology. If you are finding this difficult to do, utilize parental controls to help ease the transition when it’s time to turn off the technology.

7. Encourage Independence

Encouraging independence can be a challenge for some parents, as it can be easy to slip into the mode of taking over and doing what needs to be done. However, for children to increase their self-confidence and master their abilities, they must learn independence. Start by providing tasks that align with your child’s abilities. Begin a new task by providing as much assistance as needed, and then, over time, slowly decrease your level of support. Once your child has mastered the task, you can increase the level of difficulty. In the therapy world, we call this “grading,” which simply means increasing or decreasing the demands of a task. One example may be that your child is fluently reading picture books, and it may be time to “grade up” the task by choosing more advanced-level books. From self-care tasks to teaching your child how to read, you can use this system of grading to help foster independence with your child.

8. Invite Collaboration

Collaboration is an important component that can help steer a child’s progress in the right direction. Establish open communication with your child’s teachers and other professionals involved in your child’s life. It is important to collaborate on goals, share progress, and discuss what is working or not working to increase your child’s full potential. Facilitate social interactions with other children and parents. Creating strong social skills assists communication, cooperation, and emotional intelligence. Parents who have children who  are going through the same milestones as your own child may also provide some interesting insights and perspectives. Opening the door to the community around your child can nourish your child’s social skills and encourage their full potential.

9. Incorporate Play

Is your child refusing to participate in tasks? This is common, especially when the task is considered “work” (to be fair, as adults, we sometimes don’t want to do certain tasks, either). In working with hundreds of children over the years who all have different personalities and backgrounds, I can tell you the key to participation requires piquing their interest and making it fun (Mary Poppins, anyone?). For example, if your child is refusing to clean up after themselves, try making it into a game by having them throw their balls into the toybox for points or stack their books as high as they can. You can also play a clean-up song, which helps to get bodies moving, or create a time challenge (“Let’s see if we can clean up in three minutes!”). Create a pretend scenario where all the dolls and stuffed animals are stuck and need help getting back to their toybox. Making tasks fun not only motivates children to complete them but also sets the standard that the next time, it won’t be a task to dread.

10. Celebrate Every Success

Celebrate and acknowledge every achievement, no matter how small. Positive reinforcement is extremely powerful and can help to establish a sense of pride and confidence in children. Be as specific as possible when providing your positive feedback. Instead of a simple “good job,” try saying, “Wow! I saw how you read that entire page all by yourself, and I’m so proud that you kept going until the end!” Specific positive reinforcement can be a very useful and powerful tool to help increase your child’s confidence.

Unlocking your child’s full potential can be done, and implementing the tips provided can help pave the way for your child’s success.

Katie Zimbaluk is an occupational therapist, teacher, mother, and the author of Fly, Ladybug, Fly! –coming in October 2024.

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