This post is geared for teachers and professionals working with children in a setting where meals or snacks are given (such as a daycare or pre-school setting). As an occupational therapist, I often work with teachers giving recommendations to make eating easier for children who struggle with it. This sometimes involves making some modifications to physically help a child such as putting an anti-slip mat under their plate, adjusting table/ chair height, providing a weighted fork/ spoon, adapting utensils, etc. I decided to write this post to give some recommendations for common mistakes and feeding problems that I’ve encountered in classroom environments.
There are so many different reasons a child may have difficulty with feeding including delayed oral motor development, difficulties with visual motor skills, grasping skills, etc. which all can affect skills involving using utensils, chewing, and swallowing. Please note that if you ever have any serious concerns about a child’s eating habits in your classroom, you should always consult a trained professional (such as an occupational therapist or speech language pathologist for a possible evaluation). However, the information below highlights some general and common tips to help a child eat more independently!
-Remember, the purpose of a fork is to stab food. If the food isn’t thick or hard enough to pierce, they shouldn’t be using a fork (or at least until they are old enough and have the appropriate fine motor coordination). Instead, give the child a spoon for foods such as rice, elbow macaroni, ground beef, etc.
-It’s easier to learn how to use a spoon when eating thicker foods. For example, applesauce, thick chowder, yogurt, and pudding are easy to learn from because they stick on the spoon. Liquid soup or milk/ cereal are more difficult foods to learn how to use a spoon with.
-If a child is using a spoon to scoop up liquids, monitor to see if they need help keeping the spoon level and fix their grasp if needed.
-It’s OKAY to give a child hand over hand assistance! If a child is having a hard time stabbing a piece of chicken with a fork, put your hand over theirs and physically guide and demonstrate for them. This can help him/her motor plan the motions needed to use utensils the right way. The visual feedback and demonstration is also very helpful.
-Stable positioning helps with feeding. Some children use abnormal patterns of movement while feeding themselves. Making sure their feet are planted firmly on the ground (knees at 90 degree angles) really makes a big difference!
A child should look like this while eating:
- Head is upright and slightly forward.
- Body is upright.
- Arms are forward (and should be able to rest comfortably on the table)
- Hips and knees are bent to a sitting position (90 degree angles)
- Feet are resting flat on the floor
-If the tables or chairs are too high or too low for the kids sitting at them, consult the school occupational therapist (if that’s an option). Fixing a child’s seated posture can be as simple as adding a foam block under their feet so their legs aren’t dangling.
-Some children have trouble eating due to sensory issues. For example, think of a time you went to the dentist and had Novocain. You probably didn’t feel like talking much…and drinking water from a cup or eating food probably was very uncomfortable because you couldn’t feel anything. Although this is not exactly what it feels like for some kids… it’s comparable. For example, if a child has a bagel, they may not know how much to bite off, or they may overstuff and shovel food into their mouths. This may be because they don’t have a good sense of how much food they have in their mouth or where it is in their mouth. If a child is having trouble eating, cut their food up into small pieces and monitor how much they eat at a time. This can prevent overstuffing and a choking incident.
In a special education setting, it really helps to be vigilant of these types of issues and quick fixes for common problems to make things easier for everyone! If you have anything else to add or a helpful tip, comment below! 🙂
Author: Christina is an OTR/L and owner of Sensory TheraPLAY Box, LLC, the monthly sensory box for children with autism and/or sensory needs.
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