Occupational therapy is included as a “related service” of special education under federal and state laws. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides for the provision of special education for children with disabilities ages 3 through 21, including the related service of occupational therapy. For a related service to be included on the individualized education program (IEP), the team must determine that the student requires that service to benefit from special education. Although the student may have a disability that requires private/outside therapy, the student may not need school-based therapy services to benefit from special education. The IEP team determines if the expertise of a therapist is necessary for the student to attain annual IEP goals.
IDEA specifies that schools must educate children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, with a preference for educating the child in the general education classroom. To support this process, occupational therapists assess how the child functions in the context of the classroom, the cafeteria, the halls, the playground, the restroom, the bus, and anywhere else within the naturally occurring school environment. School-based therapists focus on removing barriers from students’ ability to learn, helping students develop skills that increase their independence in the school environment, and educating school personnel about the different considerations required for students with disabilities.
In order to help support successful inclusion of children and youth with disabilities in general education and community contexts, it is critical that occupational therapy practitioners skillfully integrate services. Integrated service delivery involves providing occupational therapy in the child’s natural environments (e.g., bus, classroom, playground, cafeteria, etc.). And don’t we know that practicing meaningful tasks in natural settings is most effective for learning new skills? We’ve all experienced this!