Every year, we ask you to nominate a colleague who does outstanding work. During this challenging and unusual semester, we wanted to highlight a therapist who's done outstanding tele-therapy. Here's a conversation with with our occupational therapist of the year, Victoria Kravets (known affectionately by her students as Ms. Vicky), who works at PS 231 in Brooklyn.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Which students do you work with?
I currently work with elementary school students, grades K-5, in a special education setting. I also provide OT services to a home-schooled high school student after my regular workday.
What is your approach?
I believe that to succeed in anything, a person needs to be fully invested in what they do. This is why I put much effort in finding out what my students are interested in. Then I use their interests to achieve the goals they are working on. I also believe in finding just the right challenge for my students, creating difficult yet attainable therapeutic activities. Enjoying what we do is the key to our success!
How has your work changed since the big switch to tele-therapy?
So many things have changed in the past few months. Moving to tele-therapy was a huge transition. The major difference for me is I’m unable to provide tactile (physical) prompting or hand-over-hand assistance to my students but instead I have to rely on visual and verbal instructions. Explaining to caregivers what needs to be done for each activity is challenging at times.
I use sensory tools, games, pencil grips, scissors and a lot of other items during my sessions. Many of my students do not have these items available at their homes which makes work difficult.
However, there are positive aspects of tele-therapy. I get to work with my students with the help of their parents, siblings or relatives. I get to brainstorm and use my creative side. I have been creating weekly videos for my students to demonstrate how to use household objects to create hand strengthening and fine motor games. I also made a few sensory movement videos that my students can follow without using any special equipment.
In addition, I get to see their happy faces when they join me in my google meet sessions.
How do you motivate students and build rapport when providing therapy virtually?
I always start my session by asking my students how they feel. My verbal students use their words and my nonverbal students use their communication devices, sign language or pictures to let me know what mood they are in. This lets me know how to organize our time.
I incorporate their interests into their activities and tasks. For example, one of my students is interested in the solar system. So, when we work on cutting out shapes; we draw planets to cut out.
It’s important to make the students feel valued and successful at what they do. I use positive reinforcement to emphasize their achievements. Finally, I end the session with at least a few minutes of an activity of my student’s choice. This helps to make sure that they feel happy which helps with retaining newly acquired information. According to Dr. David Rock, a co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, "Engagement is a state of being willing to do difficult things, to take risks, to think deeply about issues and develop new solutions. Interest, happiness, joy, and desire increase dopamine levels which is important for learning.”
Tell us about the Donor’s Choose fundraiser you organized. How did you get the idea and carry it out?
When we moved to remote learning and tele-therapy, the student’s homes became their learning environment. I created my own OT classroom in our school Google Classroom. As the first assignment, I asked my students and their caregivers to go on a “scavenger hunt” to look for materials they could use during our sessions. Soon I realized many of my students did not have basic school supplies.
I brainstormed ideas to use household objects during our sessions, which we continue to do. But then I received an email from my school’s administration about Donors Choose. It said that during the teacher appreciation week, the donations would be matched. That’s when I acted quickly. I put together a Donors Choose project describing my students and what they need to continue learning and progressing in their OT sessions at home during the pandemic.
My project was priced at over $1,000. I used social media and email to spread the word. Within a few days, donations started coming in from friends, coworkers and relatives. Facebook donated the rest of the money, and Sonic Drive-In matched all the donations. Within a week, all of the materials I asked for were on the way. I couldn’t be more excited to deliver pencils, markers, construction paper, safety scissor, rulers and more to my students!
Have you had a favorite moment so far during tele-therapy that you’d like to share?
As I mentioned above, since the beginning of tele-therapy, I decided to make instructional videos for caregiver and students. I have been posting those videos to my Google Classroom and sending them to my students via e-mail. During one of my sessions, a student’s mother asked me if I could create a YouTube channel because her son kept searching for more videos. So, I decided to go for it. During our next session, I surprised him with the name of my YouTube channel, OT Fun with Ms. Vicky, which made my student jump and squeal with joy. Later that day, I received a video message from this student saying: “Thank you so much Ms. Vicky. I love you!”
What do you want to say to fellow occupational and physical therapists trying to support students during this difficult time?
Be creative, patient, and never lose that special spark that makes our job exciting and enjoyable for everyone involved. Make every moment with your students count. Make your students feel valued and special! As author Ray Bradbury said, “Do what you love and love what you do.”