School-based physical therapists develop workarounds during NTI
October is National Physical Therapy Month
One of the challenges with distance learning amid COVID-19 is to provide school-based physical therapy for students with special needs, but the PT team in Fayette County Public Schools has come up with alternative ways to stay connected with these children and support their families. “We’re a very close-knit group, and we meet about every week to bounce ideas and concerns, and talk about caseloads, problems, and new things to try,” said Debbie Culler, who works with colleagues Heidi Mella Kennon, Teresa Traut, Kerri Walker, and Joel Clark in schools across the district. Parents tackling non-traditional instruction and trying to be therapy coaches at home should receive extra praise and assurance their child is making progress. “This is new to all of us, and they need to know we’re there,” said Culler, who has served 21 years in FCPS.
School PT focuses on the whole child and their ability to function in their educational environment. Communication, flexibility, and creativity are crucial for its effectiveness. “During NTI/2DL, the delivery of our therapy services has been as individualized as the therapy is itself to each student,” Culler noted. For example, she can design separate Zoom meetings with specific strategies for a certain student. In addition, teachers might incorporate PT exercises in their Zoom lesson plans, and the physical therapists and families can exchange notes via Google Classroom or Canvas. Another approach is to combine academics with speech, occupational, and physical therapy so the parents do not have to do multiple activities to fit in all the child’s services. “It takes the whole team to be successful,” Culler said. “In-person is so much better, but we’re doing the best we can do in this terrible time.”
Becky Dahlstrom, the associate director in Special Education who oversees FCPS physical therapists, complimented the dedicated crew, especially for guiding families online. “They’re making adjustments and adapting. They’ve been very creative in trying to continue to provide services the students need,” she said.
School-based PT differs from and does not substitute for medical, clinic-based services. “In clinical PT, they’re looking at (physical) problems and diagnosis and trying to come up with a fix. In educational PT, we’re trying to use modifications and adaptations to help the child be successful in accessing their education – no matter the disability,” Culler explained.
In the classroom, one key is to make sure the child can sit upright and make eye contact with their teacher and peers. “If we see a smile or a light in the eyes, we know they’re getting it or they’re enjoying it,” Culler said. “We do a lot of problem solving. We want that child to interact and feel like they’re just as important as that little boy or little girl sitting next to them.” For instance, the therapist might adjust the height of a table so a child’s elbow can rest comfortably, consult with the P.E. teacher on how a student can participate in gym, or request a corner locker for a youngster on crutches. School-based physical therapists also train teachers and staff on how to safely transfer a student who uses a wheelchair, stander, or walker.
Overall, the veteran Culler still finds her daily work rewarding despite the pandemic challenges. “A lot of it is reassuring the teacher, the parents, and the staff that we’ll take care of the child,” she said. “There’s not anything I’d rather be doing.”
(Posted Oct. 16, 2020)