February 23, 2022

The 411 on Physical and Occupational Therapies and Learning Functional Skills

Many things can cause children to experience delays when learning functional skills but physical and/or occupational therapy can help. Here’s what you should know.

Key takeaways:  

  • Functional skills are the skills required to perform activities of daily living.
  • If your child struggles with these skills themselves, someone will have to help them, like brushing their teeth, which in turn decreases their independence.
  • Functional skills fall into categories such as communication, self-care, safety, and vocational skills.
  • There are many reasons children may experience delays when learning functional skills.
  • Keep in mind that every child will develop on their own timeline, but there are suggested milestones.
  • If your child is not meeting suggested milestones, talk to their pediatrician. Early intervention is key.
  • Physical and/or occupational therapy can help your child improve their functional skills.

Most of us take for granted the movements we use to get through our days. We communicate our needs and wants, we take care of our hygiene, and we can keep ourselves safe in dangerous situations.

For children, this isn’t as easy. Due to their young age, they are just learning how to do things on their own. If they are progressing continually, they will start to obtain functional skills and become more independent. Sometimes, there may be delays, though.

In this post, we will talk about what functional skills are, causes for delays in learning, signs to look for to assess if there are issues, and how physical and/or occupational therapy can help.

What are functional skills? 

Functional skills are the skills that are required to perform activities of daily living. If a child can’t perform certain skills themselves, someone else, like a parent, will have to attend to these needs for them. A mother might have to carry her child up a flight of stairs or brush his teeth, for example, if he’s having trouble doing it himself.

Functional skills are required to be successful at home, school, and later in life in the workplace. They fall into categories such as:

  • Communication
  • Decision-making
  • Safety
  • Self-care
  • Recreation
  • Vocational skills

Some examples of specific functional skills are:

  • Gripping a pencil
  • Writing
  • Toileting
  • Getting dressed
  • Socialization on the playground
  • Hygiene, such as showering, brushing hair, brushing teeth
  • Using utensils/feeding oneself
  • Using a pair of scissors
  • Playing
  • Tying shoes or using buttons and zippers
  • Using a keyboard
  • Jumping
  • Running
  • Postural control

Being able to complete these tasks independently is very important to a child’s development and progress, especially in a school setting. What happens if your child is having trouble learning functional skills? Why might learning delays be happening?

Why children might be delayed

Some kids experience delays in learning functional skills. There is no one specific thing that causes a developmental delay. Some developmental delays have a specific cause but for many children, medical professionals are unable to identify the cause of the delay.

There are five main areas of delay that can affect functional skills. They are motor, social, emotional, behavioral, and speech delays. Delays in these areas can interfere with a child’s ability to do things like play with others (cognitive) or brush their teeth (motor).

Conditions and disorders that can cause these issues 

There are many reasons developmental delays could be happening. These potential culprits can affect your child’s functional skills. Some conditions and disorders that can impact successfully learning functional skills include:

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
  • ADHD.
  • Down syndrome.
  • Cerebral palsy.
  • Birth complications.
  • Chromosomal abnormalities.
  • Environmental issues, such as poor nutrition, lead poisoning, trauma, or exposure to drugs or alcohol in utero.
  • Other medical conditions, such as chronic ear infections, vision issues, or other long-term issues.

With patience, help, and support, children can usually improve their skills and overcome these delays.

What to watch for 

It’s important to be mindful that all kids develop at different rates. There is, however, a general timeline of suggested target milestones. If your child is not meeting those milestones, it is time to have them evaluated by a professional to see if early intervention is needed.

Here are signs to watch for:

  • Unresponsive to loud sounds
  • Uninterested in their surroundings
  • Isn’t hitting suggested milestones
  • Doesn’t mirror facial expressions
  • Difficulty tracking objects with their eyes
  • Unable to grip or hold objects
  • Unable to follow simple instructions
  • Doesn’t walk steadily
  • Appears clumsy
  • Doesn’t know how to use objects like a fork or a brush, or uses them incorrectly
  • No or unclear speech
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Resists activities like toileting or dressing themselves
  • Poor social skills with peers

If you see these signs, be sure to bring them up with your child’s pediatrician so your child can receive the proper help they need.

How physical therapy can help

One thing that may be recommended for your child is physical therapy. Physical therapy can help improve a child’s functional skills if they are having trouble with gross motor movements such as posture, jumping, or running. Physical therapy uses play to help kids and it provides a customized treatment plan that will allow them to build the skills they need to use their bodies.

Generally, physical therapy begins with postural control. From there, therapists progress to more dynamic challenges according to a child’s needs. The physical therapist will help your child work with their strength and balance so they can improve skills such as coordination, motor skills, and functional skills, such as climbing stairs.

How occupational therapy can help

Whereas physical therapy targets difficulties with gross motor movements, occupational therapy targets activities of daily living a child might be having trouble with, like dressing, brushing their teeth, handwriting, feeding, etc. An occupational therapist will work toward a child’s personal goals to make them as independent as possible in all aspects of their daily lives. In their early years, a child’s main job is to play and learn through play, and an occupational therapist will guide that play to set the foundation for lifelong learning and growth.

Get support from qualified physical and occupational therapists in the Chicago, IL area

Finding out your child may be delayed can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be. If your child is struggling with functional skills, you can help him or her improve at Lumiere Children’s Therapy. We offer full-service pediatric occupational therapy and physical therapy to help your child be as independent as possible.

We help kids develop form and functionality so they can complete tasks on their own. Our programs help with:

  • Motor planning
  • Gross and fine motor delays
  • Body awareness
  • Coordination skills
  • Strengthening
  • Posture
  • Functional skills, such as stairs
  • Daily self-care skills
  • Handwriting
  • Visual motor integration
  • Visual perceptual skills
  • Feeding
  • Social and peer interaction skills
  • Sensory processing
  • Strength and coordination
  • Early development with infants
  • Sensory processing

We can help children with specialized diagnoses, such as:

  • ASD
  • Sensory processing disorder
  • Developmental delays
  • Prematurity
  • Fine motor delay
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Brachial plexus injury
  • Down syndrome
  • Learning delays
  • Visual processing disorders
  • Motor incoordination
  • Chromosomal abnormalities

Lumiere Children’s Therapy also provides a host of other pediatric therapies to help children with a wide range of physical, emotional, and developmental conditions achieve traditional childhood milestones.

Our full set of services includes:

  • Occupational Therapy
  • Speech Therapy
  • Developmental Therapy
  • Social work
  • Early intervention
  • Augmentative alternative communication
  • Teletherapy
  • ABA Therapy
  • Physical Therapy

Lumiere Children’s Therapy is a full-service pediatric therapy practice located in Chicago. We focus on providing services catered to the developmental needs of children from birth to 18 years of age. Be sure to learn more about how our clinicians work diligently to improve the lives of the children and families they serve.

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