How to Help a Child With Delays in Motor Skills and When to Get Support

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Occupational therapy is not just for kids with disabilities, it can benefit a wide variety of children.

Lisa Dahlstrom, 42, is worried about her 3-year old son, Levi, entering preschool this fall. He has little interest in picking up a pencil or crayon, and when he does, he still holds it in a toddler’s fisted grip. He struggles with tracing lines and using scissors. He has trouble pulling shirts on and off himself, and shows absolutely no desire to begin potty training.

“He wasn’t doing well with these skills when he was in day care before the pandemic, and now, being home for months, he’s really fallen further behind,” Dahlstrom, a speech and language pathologist in Fairfield, Conn., said. “At day care, he had other kids to motivate him and make it fun.”

Trying to figure out if your child has a delay can be tricky even in the best of circumstances: One in four children enters kindergarten with some sort of delay in speech, gross motor skills or fine motor skills, according to a 2019 review published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics.

But with schools and day care centers having closed during the pandemic, “we are now seeing many kids who have lost not just learning, but coordination and fine motor skills,” said Tanya Altmann, M.D., assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Mattel Children’s Hospital and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. As a result, some may now need occupational therapy, or O.T., which helps children develop fine motor skills, improve eye-hand coordination and do day-to-day tasks like eating, dressing and using scissors.

It may be difficult right now to figure out if your child is actually experiencing a delay. “Previously, parents often used other kids as a gauge as to whether their own was behind, but it’s much harder to compare when your family is social distancing from others,” said Susan Cahill, Ph.D., director of evidence-based practice at the American Occupational Therapy Association.

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