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Pilot program sees UC Occupational Therapy students working in Canberra schools

Danielle Meddemmen

10 June 2021: The University of Canberra has partnered with Mother Teresa School in a program that will see Occupational Therapy students from the Faculty of Health supporting primary school children on a weekly basis.

Endorsed by the Catholic Education Office, the Occupational Therapy students will assess and support children in building day-to-day skills – with hopes of extending the program to additional schools across the Canberra region.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President Academic Professor Geoff Crisp, who attended the signing at Mother Teresa School in Harrison on Friday, said the partnership was an excellent initiative for the Canberra community.

“I want to thank the community here at Mother Teresa School for their innovation and willingness to partner with the University of Canberra in this initiative,” he said.

“Not only will we see a benefit to the students and their learning outcomes, but it sees our Occupational Therapy students getting hands-on experience within our community.”

The idea was first put forward by Mother Teresa School kindergarten teacher Karen Garrity, who worked with the Faculty of Health’s Clinical Educator of Occupational Therapy Jacqui Etherington to implement it.

Planning began in 2019, with the intention of rolling out in 2020, but this was delayed due to COVID-19 and instead commenced from Term 1, 2021.

“We are always supporting additional needs in our diverse learning team, and my son also has additional needs, so I value early intervention really highly,” Ms Garrity said.

“With long waitlists for occupational therapists, the idea came about from thinking that if we can give children access to short, focused interventions with specialists in the classroom, it could be really successful.”

The Occupational Therapy students started working in the classroom from March this year, assessing around 100 kindergarten children and their needs. They have also been working with some Year 1 students who require extra support.

The practical component then commenced in Term 2. This sees the children divided into working groups and practising their fine motor, play and emotional regulation skills.

“We want these children to have a sense of accomplishment and to feel proud of what they are doing,” Ms Garrity said.

“If they can’t form letters and use their hands smoothly across the page or don’t have the core strength to sit up and write, they can fatigue easily and lose interest, and the gap in their learning can widen.”

The Occupational Therapy students participate in practical assessments from their second year, up until their masters’ course.

Final year Masters in Occupational Therapy student Benny Lam has just completed his eight-week block at Mother Teresa School.

“It was a great experience, especially in screening and assessing the children’s abilities and then working with them directly on skills they were required to build,” he said.

“In my home country of Hong Kong, the government funds occupational therapists to work within schools in a similar model, so this has expanded my skills in that area and will help me to get a job after I graduate.”

Catholic Education, Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, Director Ross Fox attended the signing on Friday, and said that Catholic Education is keeping a keen eye on the pilot program.

“Mother Teresa School is known for a lot of things, but particularly, its great staff and enthusiastic students. It’s wonderful to again see its innovative and student-first approach to learning,” he said.

“We can’t stand still when it comes to meeting the needs of our students and the occupational therapy initiative is one we would like to see expand and grow to service other students in the future.”

This placement is just one example of the hands-on experience the University’s health students gain during their study.

Students also participate in a range of workshops and consultations through the UC Health Clinics, with services available to staff, students and the wider Canberra community.