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Extra-Curricular Activities -- Enrichment or Substitute Parenting? - featured June 24, 2011

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Extra-Curricular Activities -- Enrichment or Substitute Parenting?

By: Susan N. Schriber Orloff, OTR/L

First after many back and forth phone calls the parents finally brought their 5-year old son Sam to occupational therapy.

He started to improve, slowly. They wanted “faster”.

So they enrolled him in community sports. Not unusual, but for a child with severe motor planning issues, perhaps not the best choice.

Then they thought he might like music, so that got added too.

Then came the emails. Sam doesn’t refuse soccer, he just doesn’t do as well as the other kids. We play tennis, so we are dropping soccer and starting tennis. Can you work some tennis techniques into the therapy sessions? (well maybe, but, mmmmm and you are bringing him to OT because……..)

Then he started kindergarten. At the first 6-week conference, the teacher remarked that his math facts were a bit weak.

The parents requested an OT conference “immediately”. Dad came in he was pacing. Mom was sitting twisting a tissue in her hands. What could be so wrong, I wondered.

“Sam is failing math”, Dad began, “here is his 6-week report”. I’m thinking he has been in school 6 weeks, he is 5 he is in kindergarten. How can he be failing already? I looked at the note. It did not say he was failing it said “needs improvement”. The teacher suggested computer math games, gave websites, and talked about making trips to the store a “math conversation” (i.e. estimate how many apples are in the bag, etc.). That is all it said.

I offered that if they needed some home game ideas, I would be happy to help them.

“No”, said Dad, “my wife and I are here because we disagree on something. I say get him into MaxiMath*, it is a 2 year program he will have fun, he likes to think and they can teach him math.” She says it will be too much for him. Silent on the sofa in my office, Mom looked worn out. Dad continued, “We mean to do stuff with the kids but we never seem to have the time and if he is in the program then they can help him with math and we won’t worry about it anymore.”

What about down time I asked? Isn’t part of growing up problem-solving and learning how to figure things out for yourself ? Parent-child time can be very bonding, and when he is a teenager he won’t want to be with you, I added.

Mom looked down, Dad paced, and I calmly asked why he was pacing. “This has to be decided” he responded. This wasn’t, in the scheme of things, a life altering decision. It was however about Sam, and to a larger extent, about Sam’s parents. It was also about their wedging programs between themselves and Sam in an effort to fill their child’s needs.

“I came here so you could settle things”, he said. I then proceeded to tell him that my rule of thumb was no more that two scheduled activities a week, and the rest should be friends and play time.

I talked about why kids need “time out” of “have to’s” (such as school) and why Sam and Dad might get more out of math flash cards together than a formal 2-year program. After much talk and continued pacing and hand wringing, Dad finally said, “I hear you but we are going to try it, and Sam will have the right to tell us if he is unhappy”. I felt sad for Sam.

Sam is one of those kids who is a master pleaser. He will please anyone and will never reject a task. He smiles. He is likeable. He is polite. He is totally non-confrontational.

He does not express verbally anything negative—ever. If he doesn’t like something, he buries it deep inside and soldiers on. Every once in a while, particularly in challenging situations, a quiet tear will come down his face when he thinks no one is watching.

On the parent in-take form under extra information they parents wrote, “He is being raised in a democratic environment”. Ok he has the right to “vote” but he does not know how to vote. And therein lies the dilemma.

Until he learns how to express (appropriately) his thoughts, ideas and feelings he will not be able to vote his preferences in his home with his parents.

The expression of thoughts and feelings is an integral part of Piaget’s 4-stage maturation continuum. Owning your thoughts, ideas and feelings, learning how to manage them, express them and integrate them into everyday tasks is a skill we work on daily throughout our lives. And it is something that we should start working on as soon as we begin to talk.

Addressing both the physical and psycho-social aspects for tasks is really the heart and soul of “daily living skills”, and that is what OT’s do best. So helping children like Sam increase their verbalization abilities is part and parcel of a comprehensive OT treatment plan.

With schedules that rival the President of the US, previous pathways for learning self-advocacy seem to be evaporating. Today’s children are more anxious, less social and less resilient than their parents were just a generation ago. Neighborhood free-time (especially gross motor play) teaches negotiation, assertiveness skills, peer teaching (hey teach me to throw like that….) and more. Friendships used to be based on mutual interests not proximity (he is a guy in my math program). Skills that were learned at the family dinner table are now learned in social skills classes. Skills learned riding bikes, playing ball, etc. in the neighborhood have become secondary to the flash of virtual relationships on a computer screen.

Tutoring may be needed. Learning a new sport or skill is broadening. But it is plain fact that too many children today are over-scheduled. Trying to make a regular therapy date around music, choral group, sports and tutoring can at times be daunting.

However no tutor, no therapist, no program can replace or compensate for real child parent interaction. So is the program something the child needs, or is it serving a need of the parent? If it is the later, then maybe its validity should be reassessed. And in the final analysis, children need parents more than they need programs.

This Month's Featured Vendor: Children's Special Services, LLC

Special Thanks to Susan Schriber Orloff for providing an article for this issue's Therapy Corner.

Susan N. Schriber Orloff, OTR/L, is the author of Learning Re-enabled, a guide for parents, teachers and therapists. The National Education Association, and the International Learning Disabilities Association endorse the book. She is the Director of the Modified Developmental Preschool in Dunwoody, GA. Susan writes “Ask the Therapist,” a column in Exceptional Parent magazine, and is CEO and is the executive director of Children’s Special Services, LLC, an occupational therapy service for children with developmental and learning delays in Atlanta, GA.

She can be reached on the Web at or through

Please support our contributing authors and visit Children's Special Services, LLC on the web at: She can also be reached by email at:

Tags: Article OT Parental Involvement Newsletter 24 June 2011