Occupation-based Groups to Promote Children’s Mental Health

Promoting Subjective Well-Being

Addressing children’s mental health can be complicated and often requires an integrated approach. The knowledge and expertise of qualified mental health professionals (QMHPs) from different professions can help to assure that all of a child’s needs are met in a way that supports healthy development.

Many teams use a positive youth development framework to support children’s feelings of subjective well-being, and ultimately mental health, at school. Positive youth development focuses on the cultivation of protective factors. Protective factors are those qualities and characteristics that reduce a child’s risk of developing a mental health condition overtime. Some examples of protective factors for children and youth include:

  • Feelings of competency
  • Social connectedness

Occupation-based Groups

Occupation-based groups are one way to support the development of protective factors for at-risk children and youth at school. Occupation-based groups are designed to focus on engagement in occupations that promote feelings of competence. The groups are designed around students’ interests and values and they may or may not have a philanthropic focus. Some examples of high interest occupations include making slime, baking cupcakes, completing science experiments, or making fleece blankets for children in foster care. One common element among these groups is that, even if they require more than one or two sessions, they generally result in a finished product or other tangible outcome.

Occupation-based groups are so powerful because the occupational therapy practitioner grades the opportunities and challenges that are presented to the child in order to support his or her desire to remain goal-oriented and engage meaningfully in the group. The child’s performance is examined for discrete behaviors that signal that the child is either: 1) exploring engagement in the occupation, 2) feeling competent when engaging in the occupation, or 3) has reached some level of mastery with the occupation. Feelings of competence and mastery are associated with higher levels of subjective well-being. With the support of the occupational therapy practitioner, the strategies that the child learns to use in order to persist when confronted with an obstacle or challenge in the group context can be shaped so that they are generalized to the classroom or other learning environments where the child may feel less capable.

Team Approach

Some argue that children in the school environments are better served when teams focus exclusively on academic tasks. However, the literature suggests that when play and leisure occupations are considered first, that children and youth have the potential to develop higher degrees of self-efficacy, self-esteem, and persistence with challenging tasks.

School teams that adopt a positive youth development framework when providing multi-tiered supports can integrate knowledge and expertise from a variety of qualified mental health professionals (QMHPs). Many children require skilled counseling and social services, mental health education, behavior intervention plans, and/or wraparound services. Occupation-based groups are just one component of a comprehensive approach for addressing children’s mental health at school.



About Dr. Susan Cahill

Dr. Susan Cahill is a former Associate Professor and Director of the MSOT Program at Lewis University. She is a Fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and a member of the AOTA Commission on Practice. Visit http://www.lewisu.edu/academics/msoccuptherapy to learn more.

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