Executive Function and Mindfulness

Last week PTS hosted our first ever Administrators’ Retreat which introduced two amazing speakers to a group of local Special Education Administrators. The one day retreat was the kickoff to our 20th Anniversary of serving students with special needs in the Greater Philadelphia area.

The retreat began with Dr. George McCloskey, a neuropsychologist, who is an expert in the area of Executive Function.  Executive Function is a hot topic these days, and many school based therapists are being asked to work with teams to generate accommodations and to provide staff education on this area.  As an Occupational Therapist, I think this is a fantastic area for our profession to support students and teachers.  I first had the opportunity to see Dr. McCloskey speak at the Special Education conference last year in Hershey. He had a one hour time slot and it just wasn’t enough time. Everyone in the room wanted more.  Why? Because he helped make sense of the students and behaviors that we work with on a daily basis.  Three hours with Dr. McCloskey was still not enough and I’m hoping to one day be able to take one of his day long or even week-long courses.

Here are my favorite highlights from his presentation:

  • Executive Functions ARE NOT the skills of planning, organizing, prioritizing, monitoring, etc. Executive Functions ARE the brain managers that supervise the skills of planning, organizing, prioritizing, monitoring, etc.
  • Executive Functions are the bosses that tell the workers (skills) the WHAT and WHEN and then the HOW.
  • Deficits and/or dysfunction in Executive Function is a production issue, not a capability issue. There may be intact skills, but if the brain supervisors are weak then the capable workers may never be able to show the world what they are able to do.


This information flowed right into the afternoon session of Mindfulness, which was presented by Jenny Mills of Roots and Wings, LLC.  We learned that mindfulness is being fully present and meeting each moment with kindness and curiosity.  We worked on activities that strengthen children’s awareness and attention.  My favorite highlights from Jenny’s presentation were:

  • Children understand the concept of their attention being like a flashlight that they have control over; for example, “Shine your flashlights of attention on the board”. Using that analogy to facilitate students pointing their flashlights to what we need them to be attending to really can work in a much more effective way than saying, “Pay attention,” which is really quite a vague statement.
  • Playing games such as Mime in the Mirror where two partners are working together; one partner is the Mime and without speaking moves their body into and out of various positions (example: arms flapping, swaying like a tree in the wind, etc.) and the partner, also without speaking, must follow exactly what their partner’s movements are as if they are the mirror reflection.
  • Breathing Breaks. It sounds so simple but so many of the adults in the room confessed that they don’t feel like they “breathe right,” meaning that most of us are living our lives chest breathing and never taking a full belly breath, which is so very calming and organizing for our nervous system. Practicing belly breathing by tracing a finger around a circle on a page (inhale for half the circle and exhale as you trace the second half of the circle) all while following the finger with the eyes is a fantastically quick and quiet (and effective!) calming strategy that can be used during transition times, preparation for a test, or anytime that students need to prepare to focus.


Overall, this was an AMAZING day of learning and I know that we just scratched the surface of these two topics.  I can’t wait until the next time I can see both of these presenters again and continue exploring these two topics that are so relevant to school based therapy at this time.

For more information on Dr. McCloskey, click here.

For more information on Jenny Mills, click here.


Candice Donnelly-Knox, OTR/L – Director of Clinical Services at PTS, Inc.


Seamless IEPs – Student Goals vs. OT Goals

As we prepare to head back to school, Liz reminds us of the importance of IEP goals being the child’s goals, not a discipline specific goal! 

Seamless IEPs – Student Goals vs. OT Goals

Seamless IEPs

by Elizabeth Bentz OTD, OTR/L, SIPT

When I first began my career as a school OT eighteen years ago, I believed I could do it all. With the COTAs, our enthusiasm and magic wands, we could treat every student, climb over every wall, break down those barriers to participation.  That was the fun part.  The not so fun adventure was the avalanche of paperwork that continued to bury us along the way.  Documentation, weekly notes, ACCESS billing, parent communications, IEP development, classroom programs, progress monitoring goals, goals, goals.  All necessary.  All part of the job.  During those marathon OT sessions, every step needed to be paved with a paper trail, evidence that we were there with the student working hard to reach those OT goals.

While my team and I were eager to share the stories about our student’s journey, the harried teachers who were stressed and weighed down with their own mountain of forms, just wanted our IEP input for those OT goals.  Despite positive outcomes during occupational therapy, the student would be unable to replicate those stellar marks in the classroom.  This disconnect between participation in OT and in the class setting became another obstacle to overcome.  I had to find a way to bridge this gap because it didn’t matter how wonderfully the student worked for us.  If he or she could not succeed in the classroom, OT would continue indefinitely.  The marathon would turn into a race on a hamster wheel.  I had to get us off this wheel.


Ultimately, the goals are about the student.  They are not about OT, PT, Speech, the teachers, or the vision and reading specialists.  But this becomes the norm when parents and advocates want goals written into the IEP specifically identified by each discipline.  We are now left with a Rubik’s cube IEP with parts and boundaries, a “this is mine and this is yours” approach, rather than a seamless individualized education plan supporting the student’s ability to engage and learn.  In the school setting, occupational therapy is supportive. Education is the primary service.  Aiming towards this direction, we collaborated with the team to create student goals, not OT goals.  Initially, we were met with resistance. The COTAs and I had to break through the mentality of “this is how we’ve always done it”.  It was a tough uphill climb, but eventually we made it over the hump to show the IEP team successful and relevant student outcomes where we support the teacher, the student, and the IEP goals instead of creating separate OT objectives.  The federal regulations are clear that “IDEA does NOT require goals to be written for each specific discipline or to have outcomes and measurements on a specific assessment tool”.  This can be found on page 46662 in the U.S. Department Education’s publication Assistance to States for Education of Children with Disabilities and Preschool Grants for Children with Disabilities (2006b).

While the law indicates that separate discipline goals are not required, it also does not prohibit it.  If the school team decides that the OT will be solely responsible for a particular objective, that is what will be written into an IEP.  We have learned to avoid these tripping stones by defining our role as a related service provider. When the teacher asks us, “where are your OT goals”, we identify the student goals on the IEP that we will help them achieve. Our goals are their goals. We are going to cross that finish line together with the student…as a team.






Elizabeth Bentz OTD, OTR/L, SIPT


It’s that time of year!  School is almost ending!   And while to many it is a joyful time, for some it is a bit scary.   I am an occupational therapist and part of an elementary school community.  And the 5th graders are getting ready for a huge transition.  Think about it. It is a huge change.  Many say things like “kids have it easy.” But think about it, as a child, their worries/cares are just as big to them as our adult worries/cares are to us.  It’s all relative.  Here are some of the challenges or novel experiences our soon to be middle schoolers are facing:

  • going to more than one classroom
  • short amount of time to get to classrooms
  • larger building to get around
  • more students around (larger student body)
  • lockers!!!!!!!! and locker locks
  • carrying more stuff around
  • 6 day schedule?  what is that?
  • more independence needed overall!
  • gym uniform????? lol

This is a list I compiled just from experience.  But think of what the student must be feeling from his/her 11/12 year old brain? The other day my writing prompt was about such a topic.  The starter sentence was:  “Some things I’d like to practice before 6th grade are….”

And the answers were amazing. More than I covered on my above list!    They included:

  • being nice/making friends
  • behaving like a 6th grader
  • going to classes on time
  • learning how to lock and unlock lockers
  • going to lunch on time
  • getting on the bus on time
  • finishing homework5th grade worries

What can we do as professionals and parents to support our kiddos who are about to embark onto the next step of their educational experience?  As an OT, I do the following with my 5th grade students, which can easily been carried out by parents/caregivers as well!

  1. Students are currently practicing locker lock/combinations.  Purchase one now and start practicing!  What a relief to have that figured out how to work one before 6th grade!
  2. Get a copy of a 6 day cycle schedule and start checking that out and discuss how it works.
  3. Have your child do a tour of the middle school. Many do provide that option.
  4. See if your middle school has a “orientation” day.  In our district we provide a special day in summer with a fun scavenger hunt including locker practice.
  5. Literally practice putting things into and out of your backpack into a locker (we have one in the OT room).  At home you can practice this with any closet/surface, just to practice sorting the books/clothing/lunch.
  6. Binders:  get used to them.  And have your child get used to them!  Organization is a key skill in middle school.  Learning how to organize materials by subject and by periods in the day is pertinent.
  7. Keep the writing skills going. Keep a journal over summer that includes writing a paragraph or two about something he/she did that day.
  8. Keep the peer relationships going. Have get-togethers or adventures even after school ends.
  9. As fall gets closer, go over the bus schedule, or even take a ride with your child on to show the bus route.
  10. Make extra copies of your child’s schedule to have in the event he/she loses or forgets his/hers.
  11. Keep encouraging your child to maintain his/her room, supplies, etc., so that the organization skills continue.


Remember, school transitions are tough for little minds.  Let’s do as much as we can as parents/teachers to help ease the transition!


Mary L. Adolf, M.S., OTR/L


Cut out the Stress of Teaching Cutting!

As we all know cutting is a crucial skill for all kids to learn!  Some students quickly acquire the ability to cut and some struggle with the task. To be successful with cutting a student needs to have visual motor skills, fine motor skills, hand strength, and bilateral coordination to name a few skills.

Here are NINE quick tricks to help each child learn how to cut correctly and more independently.

  • Teaching order: ripping, snipping, straight lines, zig zag lines, curved lines/shape, right angles. Don’t expect a kid who cannot cut a straight line to cut out a complex shape for a project!
  • Prompt for good shoulder positioning: if a child starts to wing their elbow out to the side, stick a folder under the arm to remind them to keep their elbow close to their body
  • Remind them to use both hands, one for the scissors & 1 for the paper: Put stop signs/red marks/arrows at the corners of the paper in order to prompt each child to STOP & turn the paper at corners or end of a line. You can also use stickers as targets to help them remember to move their hand forward along the paper
  • Cue for grasp: If child is struggling to position the scissors correctly in the ‘thumbs up’ position, hold the paper above eye level or tape it to the wall so that the child is cutting upwards. You can also put a sticker or smiley face on their thumbnail to look at while cutting J Help your child keep the ring and little fingers tucked away by putting a little piece of paper or pompom under them.
  • Position of paper: Encourage kids to hold the paper with the helper hand; thumb on top and fingers underneath the paper. They should have their hand in the middle of the line or shape for the most stability.
  • Direction of cutting: Encourage kids to cut around shapes the correct way; right-handers should cut to the right of the shape and left-handers should cut to the left of the shape.
  • Modify the lines: Start with thick, straight lines to and progress to thinner lines. You can also highlight lines, draw over them in thicker marker or crayon, or turn dotted lines into solid lines.  If a shape is in the middle of a page, draw a line from the edge of the paper into the shape.
  • Modify paper: Have the student cut on card stock, construction paper, or old file folders instead of regular printer paper. The firmness of these materials makes cutting easier for a beginner because the paper doesn’t flop around as much. Also, providing a ½ sheet of paper or even a ¼ sheet of paper versus an entire page can also make it easier for a young student to manage!
  • Change scissors: If you’ve tried our other tips and find the task is still difficult, there are modified scissors that can be used. Some options include: spring open scissors, mounted tabletop scissors, Benbow Learning Scissors, blunt-tipped Fiskar scissors, loop scissors, lefty scissors for left-handers, or SquEEzers Training Scissors!


Colleen Marshall MS, OTR/L & Kelsey Bradshaw OTS

Indoor recess….again?!

First, we hope everyone is surviving the blistering, cold, fierce weather out there!  Sometimes weather can take a toll on our minds, bodies, and our energy.  But we are not the only ones who feel the negative effects of the winter, kids feel it too!  Not only do they have to get bundled up in countless layers, which means extra buttons and zippers, but they may also be forced to have recess trapped inside in the same room they’ve been all day!  Indoor recess can be a pain for kids and also teachers!

Here’s some games to make the most of indoor recess in order to promote physical movement we all know our students desperately need while having fun in order to energize everyone for the day’s demands.

  1. Balloon volleyball – set up a string or rope across part of the classroom, blow up a balloon, and tape tongue depressors to the back of paper plates for racquets! You’re ready to play!
  2. Dance videos for kids on YouTube. There are so many “Just Dance” videos! Here’s links to a few really fun ones!

Gummy Bear Song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hn61z3FlMQ&list=PLdCVm2nyku8k1x16X6lsoDIPbn3hmdwn2

Five Little Monkeys https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAky0T4bFJg&index=3&list=PLdCVm2nyku8k1x16X6lsoDIPbn3hmdwn2

The Hokey Pokey https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wu3gFDYLnX0&index=5&list=PLdCVm2nyku8k1x16X6lsoDIPbn3hmdwn2

  1. Sharks and minnows: have one “shark” in the middle of the room and have the “minnows” on one end of the room. They can either crawl, animal walk, hop, walk on tip-toes, or even walk backwards! You could even ask the gym teacher to borrow a scooter and play in the hallway! The object of the game is for the “shark” to tag the “minnows.” Once he tags the minnows, they are turned into sharks. The last person to be turned into a shark is the winner!
  2. Sleeping lions: have everyone lay on the ground and have one “zoo keeper” watch for any lion that is moving. If they move, then they also become a zoo keeper and continue to watch for any more restless lions. The game ends once one sleepy lion is left on the ground.
  3. Rock, paper, scissors: Separate your classroom into two teams and stand in the middle of the room. The wall behind each team is their “safe zone.” Each team either decides what they will be (rock, paper, scissors) or have a teacher decide for them. On the count of three each line acts out what they chose to be (for rock they crouch down into a ball, for paper they spread their legs and arms out like a jumping jack, and for scissors they put their arms out like an alligator). The line that wins chases after the other line as they try to run to the wall behind them.
  4. Silent ball: Have everyone spread out in the room. You have one leader who holds a medium-sized ball and counts down, “3,2,1” and passes the ball to another person in the play area. A player must sit down if s/he drops the ball, makes a bad pass, they talk or make noise. Play continues until only one person remains, last player standing gets to be the leader next round.  For young players have them sit or stand in a circle close enough to catch/throw.  For more of a challenge ask players to put one hand behind their back or spread out even further.


  • Movement is one of the most important aspects of a child’s life! Movement allows children to connect concepts to action.  Children acquire knowledge by doing, which promotes imagination, self-directed play, and movement.  Movement at school will help children focus, relax, and connect with their peers.  Here are some more blogs with more tips on how to keep these kids moving in the classroom!




While we know children need movement, we also know some students probably want to be quiet and maybe just play a game and as teachers your room is probably packed with games already. Here’s some board games that really work those fine motor skills, visual motor skills, and fine motor skills that are often addressed during occupational therapy sessions!

  1. Operation
  2. Connect 4
  3. Geoboards
  4. Pop Up Pirate
  5. Legos
  6. Twister
  7. Rush Hour
  8. Mancala
  9. Hi Ho Chery-O
  10. Trouble
  11. Sorry!
  12. Hidden Picture puzzles
  13. Battleship
  14. Mastermind
  15. Jenga
  16. And so many more!

So while indoor recess can be annoying (to say the least) with just a little bit of work on your part, the time can be spent having the kids play and have fun while working…without them even knowing it!

What tricks of the trade do you have to survive indoor recess? Share your favorite games or activities!

Colleen Marshall MS, OTR/L & Kelsey Bradshaw OTS

The Almighty Dollar Challenge!

Hey! It’s the last day in January and it feels ‘Oh so Good’! I have officially started my “Dollar Challenge” contest for my Articulation students. What is the Dollar Challenge you ask? It’s only the best thing that’s ever happened to articulation therapy! My shout out goe to Jenna Rayburn from Teacher Pay Teacher who created this fantastic product.

This is the way we use it: Each page has one hundred pennies. If you are Kindergarten to 1st grade, you have 10 dimes on one page. One penny for every target sound. The students have a “top ten list” which I made and post to my back wall. You can make the top ten list by doing as many dollar challenges in a session as possible (the standing record is 51. Which is 5100 words). If you make my top ten list by the end of the year (they have about 20 weeks to complete this challenge) then you receive a prize of 10 dollars or less of off Amazon. The students hand pick the prizes and we put them on the wishlist so they know what they are working for.

This is a HUGE motivator and helps me to gauge and take data so easily. I am very picky and monitor each student for correct form and clarity. If you “try to read in your head” and don’t say the sounds, you lose two dollar challenges for every one you didn’t complete correctly (I know, I’m a meanie but this is supposed to be a challenge!) Now, I do have some students who absolutely do not want to put the work in or simply don’t care about the challenge. Those students are REQUIRED to do at least two dollar challenges and then they may do alternate work (usually it takes them all session to do to because they don’t want to do it-ha!).

I love this challenge because it produces so many repetitions of a target sound but it also teaches my students about persistence and patience. It’s such a good feeling to see them come in and race to the table to get their word books and challenge papers. All sessions you hear, “How many do you have? Or I’m on 6!” and this makes a speech therapist’s heart very happy! I am also saying, “Keep your tongue down! Smile when you say those!”

Student Testimonials:

“It’s a fun way to learn and you get free stuff”

“It’s a good way to say |r| words!”

“It’s better than just “reading those books’!”

Here’s the link to Jenna’s Dollar Challenge. It’s worth every penny.


Aren’t I so punny?

Samantha Kessler, M.S., CCC-SLP

“Therapists, Start.. Your.. Engines!”

Happy New Year everyone! Here’s to the hopefulness that 2017 brings. For me, the New year starts in August (the beginning of the school year) a time for new ideas, new organization strategies and new students! I consider the Holiday break my “Second New Year”.  During the second half of the school year, I take time to think of a new project/theme/motivator for the students and re-decorate my room. This year, I love my room and decided to use a the good old “Dollar challenge” for motivation courtesy of Jenna Rayburn on Teachers Pay Teachers (the worst site ever created for my wallet).

Here is a sneak peek at my room this year! (Ps. That’s brick bulletin board paper! Thank you Lakeshore!)



Before we get to some of the great new things to try, let’s take a look back at 2016. The student’s are still trying to figure out how we can keep the Christmas tree out all year and what the New Year’s theme should be for the 5th grade hallway. I feel so incredibly lucky to work at a school that not only allows me to be creative, but encourages it!


Above: Happy Holidays from the 5th grade hallway! –“The four-hour-Holiday-Tree”–“Origami tree gone’ right”–Our new amazing learning lab our principal let me paint–and my ugly  homemade sweater/sweat-pant combo. (I am still healing from 2nd degree hot glue gun burns).

Now as for 2017, I plan to make improvements in self-esteem and success in my students. I want them to believe in themselves! That’s the first step of course: Believing you can accomplish anything! This requires not only my students and I, but teacher and parent collaboration. I’ve just gathered some new and exciting materials to share and help promote carryover that I’m getting ready to share with my colleagues.

Here’s a great one for the iPad users out there! :https://omazingkidsllc.com/2016/12/31/the-ipad-the-slp-in-2017-app-list-for-slps-sorted-by-goal-area/

So often I find that students will give up if they don’t feel successful. Also, they don’t have strategies for when things seem difficult. That’s my goal this year: to give them better strategies for getting “stuck”.  I decided to make every student write down something they are very good at and something they consider a weakness.

One of my students wrote:

“Strength- Playing basketball/ Weakness: Math”

When I asked him why he was so good at basketball he responded by telling me he wasn’t good at first and that it required an intense amount of blacktop time before he could shoot as well as he does now. Understood.

Then I asked him why “he thought” he was bad at math. He responded with something I didn’t expect. He told me that the instant gratification wasn’t there. He could shoot a basketball and see right away if it went in or not. Math required time and energy and the pay off wasn’t immediate. Well, well. Talk about honesty!  In a time of iPads, tablets, phones and all sort of electronics, instant gratification is required. No, it is expected. So how can we get our students to realize that it’s about the journey and not the end point? That the idea of failure is to try again?

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
-Henry Ford

You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing that we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.”
-Mary Pickford

That’s my goal this year: to make the journey worth it. To make “trying again” a new fad. Are you with me?!


Happy New year!

Samantha Kessler, M.S., CCC-SLP