Occupational therapist Catherine Hoyt, OTD '10, OTR/L, heads to north St. Louis to see a family whose child has sickle cell disease. In her car are books and toy blocks. In her mind are blossoming ideas of ways to involve the child and her family in activities designed to enhance learning.
“To help a child truly engage, you have to know what their home environment is like,” Hoyt says. “I meet with more than 20 families each month in their own homes.”
Hoyt, a parent educator in addition to being an occupational therapist, runs a unique version of the internationally recognized Parents as Teachers (PAT) Program out of the Child Health and Education Laboratory in the Program in Occupational Therapy. The goal for all the programs is to coach parents or caregivers on how to interact and play with children to optimize their chances for learning. In the case of Hoyt’s program, she focuses on families that have a child with sickle cell disease that was diagnosed at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “I seek out families with infants and toddlers so that we can identify challenges as soon as possible and provide the support and resources necessary to minimize those deficits, whether through therapy or referrals.”
Hoyt uses the PAT model as an intervention, hoping that she can document long-term improved outcomes for children with sickle cell disease. Research shows that children with SCD have a higher risk of difficulty in learning once they reach school age. Economic and education factors that are present in the home environment also increase the risk of delayed learning. “Children who grow up in families with low income or low education backgrounds typically have less opportunities to learn,” Hoyt explains. “And that gap gets bigger and bigger every year.”
She spends one day a week in the hospital’s SCD clinic approaching families and offering occupational therapy services through her PAT program. The rest of the time she’s travelling to homes of families that agree to participate. “We first conduct a developmental evaluation, looking at cognitive, language and motor development to see if there is a severe delay,” Hoyt says. “We also look at parental stress and the home environment.”
Parental acceptance of the program is high, especially with families who have infants recently diagnosed with SCD. “They don’t know what to do or how to help their child, and my role is to help them learn how to teach their own children. Parents are a child’s first teacher, so if we can get them off on the right foot, the results are very good.”
Hoyt has offered her SCD-specific PAT program for the past three years and hosts picnics twice a year for all of the families enrolled. “I came into occupational therapy wanting to help underserved families,” she says. “I continue to do this because when I get families who appreciate what I’ve done and they say that I have changed their lives, that’s everything. It keeps me going.”
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