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Occupational therapy for school kids gets more money

Sea to Sky Community services gets 54 per cent more from school district but waitlist remains
before-school program Sea to Sky Community Services occupational therapist Tara-Leigh Cain at work with two of her young pupils in her Kindergarten Readiness Group. Photo submitted by Sea to Sky Community Services

Nicole Pearson's two young sons, Jobey and Levi, have benefited immensely from Early Intervention occupational therapy in Squamish — but the boys hit a snag when they were old enough for school.

Levi, the youngest, received it prior to starting Kindergarten this year, but now that he is in the school system he is no longer eligible.

"Because he was under the age of five when I first sought treatment, he was eligible provincially and I was able to get treatment for Kindergarten readiness. His therapist Tara (-Leigh Cain of Sea to Sky Community Services) discovered he might need some speech therapy. Fortunately, we were able to get that assessment before he went to school, because if we waited until he went to school we wouldn't have been able to be covered. Now that he is in school, if I want him to be seen by the speech pathologist in school I will find out (soon) if he will be seen in the school system."

But Pearson has decided not to wait and will likely seek private treatment for Levi, and also for her eldest son Jobey, who is eight, and was in Grade 2 when the Pearsons sought treatment for him.

"It was pretty much the same for my oldest son, Jobey. If I had waited for him to be seen through the school system, he probably would still be waiting. We decided not to wait," she said.

"It wasn't straightforward because my oldest son had seen Tara previously. I had previous experience with her and I knew she was out there. I was able to get in to see her, fortunately, and I knew she had the services that Levi could take advantage of before he started school."

Thanks to a $6,000 increase in funding from Sea to Sky School District No. 48, more school-aged children with developmental and physical disabilities and delays have been helped by Sea to Sky Community Services' (SSCS) physiotherapy and occupational therapy programs.

This represents an increase of 54 per cent to $17,000 for this school year.

But 41 children in the region remain on a wait list, said SSCS director of community living services Liz Wood.

Its Wait Loss Program, a project to cut school-age occupational therapy program waitlists for help, was developed by SSCS in response.

"It was just an idea because of the waitlist. Working with the school district in seeing how it was really important for them to increase their contribution. It is smaller than the contribution from the Ministry of Children and Family Development that we do get additional funds from. We are also doing some fundraising, too, which we haven't been successful with so far," Wood said.

Wood would love to see the budget for occupational therapy doubled.

"We hope to be able to double our budget for that program and then we could see an additional 50 children," she said.

An issue for the SSCS is being able to hire more staff to assist in more efficient ways.

"Right at the very moment we are taking some of that money and putting it towards our therapy assistant, who is running some groups, which comes in at a little more affordable than the physical and occupational therapists. It allows them to do more consulting. The groups are more direct service," Wood said.

Another issue is to have staff in different parts from the Sea to Sky corridor to cut costs related to travel time.

"The challenge in this field is getting people because pediatric physical and occupation therapists are very rare, hard to find and they can earn more in private practice," she said.

Marilyn Caldwell, the director of instruction for the school district said they wanted to reach as many students as possible.

"We're placing emphasis on early intervention and it was felt that we could increase it in the OT-PT in order to address early intervention with who have both fine and gross motor needs," Caldwell said.

"We broadly know more about what students' needs are and so we've become more discrete in how we understand these issues. For example, there might have been a time when we didn't understand why kids weren't buttoning up their coats when they went outside. But now we can find out if it is because they have motor difficulties... it's not a behaviour issue."

This translates at the classroom level when a child has trouble simply holding a pencil.

"Now we have the medical support for understanding that better and we can help kids with early intervention," she said.