7 Holistic & Healthy Ways OTs Can Bring Change in the School Setting

7 Holistic & Healthy Ways OTs Can Bring Change in the School Setting


Planting seeds, it’s all that you can do at times, but eventually those seeds will grow into beautiful, long lasting plants, trees or flowers.

By Michelle Bonang, OTR/L

Having my own business in Vermont means seeing my own private clients and also contracting out to the school systems. In the schools, I am up against politics, a food system that isn’t working, and standards that the teachers need to adhere to daily. Many are stressed, overwhelmed, overworked and sometimes at a loss. Children are showing more behaviors, increased difficulties sitting still, limited play skills, and constant meltdowns. What is going on and how has this change happened?

I will give you my opinion in 4 letters – DIET. Children today are so nutrient deprived, eating processed foods/genetically modified foods, minimal fruits and veggies, and an absorbent amount of sugar. Then, they are expected to sit still and engage for hours when their bodies and brains go on highs and lows all day long, blood sugars rising and falling, energy levels with peaks and valleys, similar to a person addicted to drugs.

Studies have actually shown that sugar is as addictive as heroine, so of course these kids are always hungry. They are seeking out their next high from sugar filled “foods” that provide absolutely no benefit to their growing brains. Harsh – yes. Honest – absolutely. I will admit that technology, screen time and lack of outdoor play limiting vitamin D are impacting this epidemic as well, but with a healthy diet, children will have more energy to run around and play outside and would willingly choose this activity over an iPad any day, guaranteed! With a healthy diet, we would also see less children being prescribed medication for ADHD at the young age of FIVE, less medication for anxiety and depression, and improved immune systems. This paradigm needs a shift, and soon, because our youth are suffering immensely and these medications are changing their brain biochemistry across their lifetime.

In every meeting that I attend, the team waits for my “spiel” on how to incorporate holistic techniques into their children’s and families lives, with a large focus on nutrition. Sometimes, there are eye rolls or “glazed over looks” as a colleague of mine once observed, but that’s okay. If I can help change one child’s life out of a multitude, the seed has grown! The constant education that I provide staff and families is worth it all, and a few of my colleagues have actually changed their lifestyles due to my plantings and consult with me on holistic living almost weekly! Let’s be honest, I choose my battles. A family dealing with homelessness needs love and support around finding a home for their family first. Emotionally, they are not ready to tackle other areas, but many families can tackle these areas with the right support in place. My husband hears my frustrations – constantly, and listens, while pushing me along to continue to be the change in a conventional, and in a sense, medical minded setting. He’s the warrior and fan behind the scenes!

Now that I have given you my “spiel”, let’s get down to the nitty gritty! How are we being the change as holistic occupational therapists in the school setting and what are we implementing where we can?


1. Aromatherapy

There are immense benefits of using essential oils, and although I am not going to get into them here, I encourage you to do your own self-study or find a course to learn how to incorporate them into your life or your work as a practitioner! I have taken an Introduction to Aromatherapy course by Emmy Vadnais, OTR/L to enhance my knowledge on how to incorporate essential oils into my work as an OT, and also into our family’s lives. Essential oils are now a part of our daily routine at home. In the school setting, we have also placed an aromatherapy diffuser in the therapy room. We choose oils that are mostly calming, as this is what a large percentage of the children need. We also have oils that combat germs and boost the immune system, which is incredibly important when working with constantly ill children on a daily basis. A student also recently underwent a leg lengthening surgery with an external fixator, and the school nurse was willing to email the surgeon to discuss the possibility of daily essential oil massages at school to improve range of motion, assist with pain management, decrease inflammation and improve affect and mood as well. Stay tuned for the verdict on this, as I may need to call and educate the surgeon prior to getting clearance.

2. Yoga

It began as a Kindergarten group this fall, and now we have incorporated weekly yoga sessions into almost every single classroom – woohoo! The teachers are begging for more and the kids love it. We are thrilled to have started providing yoga sessions this year! We work on understanding what yoga is, partner yoga making it fun, various types of breathing, yoga for calming, yoga for increasing core strength and overall, yoga to settle the mind and the body and prepare the children for learning. We always end each session in Shavasana, and the students are really learning to calm their nervous systems. From a sensory perspective, yoga is providing these students with self-regulation strategies to access anytime that they need. It also works on core strength, as mentioned above, which is often times weak in children with sensory processing challenges. Yoga also incorporates balance, bilateral coordination, working opposite sides of the brain, and oxygen flow throughout the body. All of this impacts a child’s sensory needs in positive ways reintegrating the sensory systems, again, preparing them for learning!


3. Mindfulness

This year we have had a few kiddos that are really struggling to keep it together all day at school. Emotionally, they have a lot of needs, and they were not able to access any learning within their environment. With these children, we worked yoga into our OT routine, but we focused more on mindfulness, being present, and breathing. I began to use “Sitting Still Like a Frog” both the book and CD with positive impact.

4. Diet & Nutrition

This is where we are still struggling, and I am waiting for one parent to take hold of my recommendations 100% and more, so that I can have a case study of a real child with a real face and real name in the community and show the positive benefits of eating a healthy, nutrient dense diet. I guess you can stay tuned for that as well! A few favorite books of mine to recommend to parents are “Cure Your Child with Food: The Hidden Connection Between Nutrition and Childhood Ailments” by Kelly Dorfman and “The N.D.D. Book: How Nutrition Deficit Disorder Affects Your Child’s Learning, Behavior, and Health, and What You Can Do About It–Without Drugs” (Sears Parenting Library) – both books can be found on Amazon. They are parent friendly, provide case studies, and are very informative. They are not overwhelming and are perfect for parents. Working with families privately, it is easier to get them on board with trialing a healthy gluten free diet to improve focus and attention, encourage them to avoid all processed foods and sugar, and limit casein and dairy, truly figuring out each individual child’s food triggers. This is important for all children, but especially children diagnosed with Autism, ADHD, Anxiety, Depression, Asthma, etc. However, in the school setting, there are a lot of barriers. Many children eat school lunch, which is providing minimal nutrients to sustain attention and focus. The contact that I do have with parents is minimal, and it is a big change that many are just not willing to accept. Plant those seeds, nonetheless!

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5. Menu Planning Committee

About a month ago, there was a menu planning committee meeting of staff and students. Of course, I did not miss this! Here we go, planting seeds again. Since the meeting, I have seen a few changes, such as fruit smoothies in the morning, but we sure have a long way to go. I have found a few studies that I have presented to principals on how a healthy diet impacted children’s behaviors in two separate schools, simply providing education. I also am planning on speaking with one of the school districts superintendents to discuss applying for the Farm to School program, that you can find more about from these stories California school district becomes first in US to go all-organic and non-GMO and Students Behave Better with Healthy Lunches. I have also been asked to join my own son’s Farm to School Committee, which will help educate me more about the program, which I can then bring into the districts where I am working.

6. School Newsletter

Educating through words can sometimes be a powerful tool, as families have time to think about what they have read, do research and come to you with questions. This year, occupational therapy has it’s own section in one of the school newsletters, which is another first. Initially, through our articles, I educated families on exactly what we do as OT’s, being sure to incorporate that we work on the whole child, which includes health and wellness and healthy meal planning, along with fine motor, visual motor, sensory motor, etc. During February, I took advantage of it being heart healthy month and put a spin on it teaching families how to crowd out the bad while crowding in the good. Encouraging families to cook whole food and leave packaged foods loaded with ingredients at the store. For many, it may be the first time that they were “hearing” this information. We’ve also delved into how we are incorporating yoga in the classroom and inspired families to do this at home as well. Coming up, we will give parents strategies for improving their child’s fine motor skills through home activities, and the more overall education we can provide about our field the better, so it’s an added bonus that we have become a part of the monthly newsletter.

7. Colleague Support

As I mentioned earlier, many of the staff in the school come to me with questions, whether it’s about diet, vitamins, or a nontoxic mattress! I love the questions and providing education when I can. A few people now see my Naturopath on a regular basis, and one of them is going to now make her their family practitioner – awesome! Hopefully, the teachers are also learning mindfulness strategies, deep breathing and yoga techniques for themselves because being a teacher is a tough job to say the least, and they need these strategies too!

Thank you for reading how we are planting those seeds in a conventional setting, in hopes that in the following years we will see blossomed, radiant success stories!

MichelleBonangMichelle Bonang, OTR/L provides holistic and sensory based occupational therapy services to infants and children with multiple diagnoses including autism, sensory-processing challenges, cerebral palsy and developmental delays. She has a passion for working with children and enjoys every moment of working closely with her clients and their caregivers. As a parent herself, she knows the joy of each milestone reached and every challenge mastered and finds happiness in assisting infants and children reach these goals. Visit www.pediatricplay.blogspot.com to learn more about Michelle and like her on Facebook.

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