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Thinking outside the brain: an occupational therapist’s work

Juliana Padilla, OT Imagine a time you felt stressed or anxious. There are many strategies to use: counting to ten, breathing in deeply or redirecting our attention. But for our youngest learners, sometimes a different approach is needed.

This is where Polton Elementary’s occupational therapist Juliana Padilla comes in. Padilla works with preschool students with developmental delays or disabilities, focusing on the brain-body connection. She collaborates with teachers and mental health providers to understand what students need and what accommodations can help them.

“We think about their disability, but we also need to consider their ability and strengths,” Padilla said. “Preschoolers aren’t ready to self-regulate the way older students are, so we need to give them tools they can use to empower them to learn.”

Some of these tools are sensory social routines like fidget toys, weighted vests or a lap pad. Tools like these can help students regulate using movement or tactile stimulation, allowing the student to calm down and be more regulated.

“We were seeing that cognitive-only strategies weren’t working for our students,” Padilla said. “We wrote a grant for the Conscious Discipline program, which has brought us together as a school to redefine how we talk about regulation.”

Working with the Conscious Discipline program helped Polton staff gain new, shared vocabulary for students as well as ways to set up classrooms for opportunities to self-regulate. By emphasizing a “classroom family” model, students feel connected and empowered to practice skills that will help them throughout their lives.

“I’ve never met a kid who doesn’t have a strong desire to learn,” Padilla said. “It’s not the student’s job to change something they can’t control, it’s our job to provide an environment where they can thrive.”

Padilla noted that autism, sensory issues and learning disabilities are all “invisible” to the outside observer, but that with time, patience and consistency, students can begin accessing the curriculum and self-regulating in ways that were never thought possible.

“When we first started this work, I had some teachers who were feeling overwhelmed by the accommodations and using these new techniques,” Padilla said. “We put in a lot of hard work and soon teachers were coming back to me, telling me it was like magic. They had transformed their classroom in a powerful way that led to better student outcomes.”

Padilla began her journey with Cherry Creek Schools eight years ago after shadowing an occupational therapist and learning about the role. Hooked by the mixture of science and psychology, Padilla began dedicating her life to providing students with environments and strategies to help them learn. 

“We all come with different strengths and ways that we interact with the world,” Padilla said. “I get to help the kids and adults at Polton understand how to use our strengths and create a new wavelength to access education. I’m very grateful I have this opportunity.”


Posted 1/12/21.