PRT Treatment in SLP, OT, & PT

PRT (Pivotal Response Treatment) is an important frame of reference for Speech/Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists and Physical Therapists. PRT uses applied behavioral analysis principles as well as child choice, reinforcing attempts, varying activities, alternating familiar with challenging activities, and direct natural reinforcers. PRT’s transdisciplinary family-centered approach makes it particularly appropriate for allied health therapists.


PRT shows significantly greater effectiveness for treating Autism Spectrum Disorder than traditional applied behavioral analysis http://education.ucsb.edu/autism/research/publications and facilitates neuroplasticity in young children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In addition to its usefulness for addressing language and behavioral challenges related to Autism Spectrum Disorders, PRT is a clinically relevant intervention for addressing other developmental and psychiatric challenges (e..g., fragile x syndrome, cognitive deficits, developmental trauma disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, depression, anxiety). Treatment is done with the family across disciplines in the child’s natural environment, so gains in language and motor skills are generalized to improve functioning.



PRT is a valuable treatment frame of reference for Speech/Language, Occupational and Physical Therapists.


Amaral, D. G., Schumann, C. M., & Nordahl, C. W. (2008). Neuroanatomy of Autism. Trends in Neuroscience, 31(3), 137-145.

Voos, A. C., Pelphrey, K. A., Tirrell, J., Bolling, D. Z., Wyk, B. V., Kaiser, M. D., McPartland, J. C., Volkmar, F. R. (2012). Neural mechanisms of improvements in social motivation after pivotal response treatement: Two case studies. Journal of Autism Dev Disord, 43(1), 1683-1689.


The Importance of Parents

As an occupational therapist working with children and adolescents who have special needs, I am repeatedly impressed by the amazing love and perseverance of their parents.  Supporting and encouraging parents is the most important job of doctors and therapists who are trying to help children and adolescents.  I repeatedly recall my doctoral dissertation on parental perceptions of feeding their young children who had special challenges.

ParChildIntFeeding Pagano Dissertation2000

My study found that half of the parents who had young children with developmental and feeding problems had problematic levels of parental stress.  I further discovered that feeding satisfaction was inversely related to parental stress, with parents who were most satisfied with their feeding experience reporting the least parental stress.  When rating the influence of occupational and speech therapy intervention on their feeding experience 42% reported a positive effect, 23% both a positive and negative effect, and 11% a negative or no effect.

In my current work with adolescents who have psychiatric illness I continue to see the great healing effects of supportive parents.  It is extremely important for therapists and physicians to support these parents through their trials, and help them understand the importance of taking care of themselves.  Parents reported that the most effective component of therapy in reducing parental stress was the experience that the therapist cared about them and their child.  If I do nothing else as a therapist, I hope to always convey to youngsters and their parents how truly valuable and important they are.


Occupational Therapy in Adolescent Mental Health

I was recently honored to present Grand Rounds at Solnit Children’s Center, the adolescent psychiatric hospital where I work. GrandRoundsOT Outline Our dynamic transdisciplinary team over the past 5 years was able to significantly reduce the use of restraint and seclusion.OT role in Restraint Reduction Solnit which was celebrated by making a bench for the hospital grounds from restraint beds (which are no longer used).


Occupational Therapy is a vital intervention for adolescents with mental health, PTSD and developmental challenges.  Occupational therapists address adolescent mental health in schools, outpatient mental health clinics, youth psychiatric hospitals, and juvenile detention facilities. Occupational Therapy (O. T.) focuses on promoting adolescent’s occupations, the things they want or need to do. Adolescent’s occupations typically include school,


activities of daily living (e.g., grooming, keeping their room clean), prevocational activities, sports, exercise, and social activities. For example, intervention on developing occupations is needed by some adolescents recovering from drug addiction, where their primary activities of taking drugs and doing illegal activities (to earn money for drugs) must be replaced by a new lifestyle with more functional occupations.  I am repeatedly impressed by my client’s and their families’ ability to confront the challenges of mental illness, and their unique gifts as individuals http://www.behindthelabel.co.uk

Occupational therapy offers unique contributions to adolescent mental health intervention due to its foundations in neurology, physiology, psychology, development, human occupations, and sensory processing. At Solnit Children’s Center the primary frames of reference used include: mindfulness, sensory processing, sensory massage, trauma informed care, Pivotal Response Training (a research proven form of Applied Behavioral Analysis), exercise, and developmental intervention. Occupational therapy is a vital component of transdisciplinary team intervention for adolescents with mental health challenges.


Neurological Foundations of Sensory Integration

Current neurological research guides therapist’s clinical reasoning for using sensory integration intervention. Recent research proposes that sensory-motor activities help typical youngsters develop internal models of their body and voluntary movements. For example through repeated touch and movement of their thumb as well as learning to ride a bicycle, children develop internal models. With repeated practice these internal models become integrated neurological representations allowing automatic feed-forward control for functional activities. We become able to automatically locate and use our thumb without looking and can ride a bike on a flat road without concentrating on the integrated arm, leg, and balance reactions involved.


Sensory integration challenges appear related to dysfunctional interactions between the neocortex, basal ganglia and cerebellum. These dysfunctional neurological connections cause many children with sensory integration or developmental challenges to experience sensory over-sensitivity, under-sensitivity, body image, and movement planning challenges. For example, individuals with Autism Spectrum disorders and other developmental challenges appear to show significant differences from typical children in representations by the somatosensory cortex of their thumb that may reflect disrupted internal models (Coskun et al. 2009).


Sensory integration intervention appears to promote development of internal models of body image and movement through active exploration that provides naturalistic pressure, touch, movement, visual, and auditory sensory input at an optimal level of challenge.  Sensory integration intervention involves clinical reasoning based on experience and neurological research in gradually guiding active movements involving pressure, touch, movement, visual and auditory sensory input to improve functional skills.  An understanding of this current neurological research regarding development of internal models can be useful to therapists for clinical reasoning during sensory integration intervention.


Koziol, L. F., Budding, D. E., & Chidekel, D. (2011). Sensory integration, sensory processing, and sensory modulation disorders: Putative functional neuroanatomic underpinnings. Cerebellum, 10, 770-792.


Marco, E. J., Hinkley, L. B., Hill, S. S. & Nagarajan, S. S. (2011). Sensory processing in Autism: A review of neurophysiologic findings. Pediatric Research, 69, 48R-54R.




FAB Strategies® to Improve Self-Control

FAB Strategies® are Functionally Alert Body Strategies that can be used by parents, teachers, as well as Occupational, Speech, Physical, and Mental Health therapists to improve youngster’s functional behavior.  FAB Strategies® were developed to guide transdisciplinary intervention for individuals with developmental, mental health, post traumatic stress disorder, and sensory processing challenges. FAB Strategies® combines developmental, sensory processing, behavioral, touch pressure, mindfulness, movement and neuropsychology interventions to help individuals with complex behavioral challenges.

The four sections of FAB Strategies® are environmental adaptation, sensory modulation, positive behavioral support, and physical self-regulation strategies. While reducing aggression in special needs students FAB Strategies® simultaneously facilitates attention, learning, and parental involvement in typical students. FAB Strategies® can be used for regular class teaching as well as small group and individual intervention sessions. Many typical students lack adequate seated attention, self-control, and sensory-motor skills to master their academic learning requirements. FAB Strategies® are fun active learning tasks that engage students’ musical, visual-spatial, auditory, interpersonal, and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence to improve learning.

FAB Strategies® are guided by the FAB Strategies® to Improve Self-Control form FAB STRATEGIES FORM and FAB Strategies® for Pre-K and Kindergarten form FAB StrategiesPre&KForm. The FAB Strategies® forms list strategies organized into four sections addressing: environmental adaptation, sensory modulation, positive behavioral support, and physical self-regulation strategies. The teachers and therapists develop a functional goal and choose at least one strategy from each section for goal attainment. Strategies chosen are checked and underlined for use across disciplines.

The FAB Strategies® forms can be used as a checklist of helpful activities to consider when developing transdisciplinary interventions for students with behavioral challenges. The FAB Strategies® forms were also designed as an efficient way to develop home programs and provide a list of effective strategies when students transfer to other teachers and therapists. The FAB Strategies form enables teachers and therapists to individualize interventions that improve behavior in response to each student’s developmental level and individual needs.


School Occupational Therapy for Developmental Trauma

School occupational therapists emphasis on therapeutic relationships, mental health, sensory processing, attachment, development, purposeful activity and self-regulation offer a unique contribution for improving the behavior of students with developmental trauma disorder. School behavioral problems related to developmental trauma are seen in students who have experienced early chronic abuse. Many students with developmental trauma difficulties have significant sensory modulation, emotion regulation, attachment, self-regulation, sensorimotor, somatic, and developmental challenges.  Working in conjunction with school psychologists, social workers, and guidance counselors, occupational therapists can help improve the mental health and behavior of students who have developmental trauma challenges http://www.aota.org/-/media/Corporate/Files/AboutOT/Professionals/WhatIsOT/CY/Fact-Sheets/OT%20%20School%20Mental%20Health%20Fact%20Sheet%20for%20web%20posting%20102109.pdf http://www.aota.org/-/media/Corporate/Files/Practice/Children/SchoolMHToolkit/Reducing-Restraint-and-Seclusion.pdf

Occupational therapy for improving the behavior of students with developmental trauma can include energy level modulate, sensory processing, deep pressure touch, and mindfulness strategies. The energy level modulate strategy involves increasing students’ awareness of their arousal level and teaching them to modulate dysfunctional high or low energy levels to better participate in school learning tasks. It can be introduced by explaining that “some students who have had difficult experiences early in their life can get into trouble by overreacting when they have really big feelings”. The energy level modulate strategy teaches students to identify whether their current energy level feels “High” (hyper, off the wall, with stiff muscles like raw spaghetti), “Medium” (just right and ready to learn) or “Low” (tired, numb, with loose muscles like over cooked spaghetti).

Visual chart for rating arousal level and if it feels comfortable

Visual chart for rating arousal level and if it feels comfortable

The energy level modulate strategy is extremely useful in school settings for students with sensory modulation difficulties who become aggressive following activities that raise their energy levels extremely high. While many students can use the energy level modulate strategy with teacher encouragement, some students with sensory modulation difficulties and developmental trauma need assistance. For example, a student receiving occupational therapy attended a wild physical education class where the students ran, screamed and threw balls at each other. His classmates behaved appropriately upon returning to class. However, this student who had significant sensory sensitivity and developmental trauma challenges was unable to sit down upon returning to class and threw a chair.

Following this experience the occupational therapist taught the school physical education teachers and mental health therapists the energy level modulate strategy so students could rate their energy levels before returning to class. The teacher or therapist would bring students who rated their energy level as uncomfortably high to a designated staff member (e.g., occupational therapist, speech therapist, principle, resource room teacher) who would help the student do pushups or other individualized sensory coping strategies to lower their energy level before returning to class.

The most effective strategies for normalizing energy levels involve deep pressure through the joints with slow linear movements. Activities such as regular or wall pushups, moving furniture, moving mats, delivering messages or boxes of books throughout the school, or wheelbarrow walking on your hands over a therapy ball can help achieve this.


Special consideration can be given in the energy level modulate strategy for students with both sensory modulation and developmental trauma challenges who have become use to maintaining a high energy level that interferes with appropriate attention and behavior for school functioning. This difficulty can be indicated by students who describe their energy level as “Hyper and comfortable” and students who actively resist efforts by their teachers and therapists to calm down to a functional energy level where they can pay attention to classroom activities. For students who resist regulating their energy to a functional level it is helpful for the therapist to begin by matching the student’s initial energy level, then support the student during individual sessions to gradually modulate their energy level.  http://www.traumacenter.org/products/pdf_files/Body_Change_Score_W0001.pdf 

Individual OT sessions using sensory processing, deep pressure touch, and sensory mindfulness strategies help students with self-regulation and developmental trauma challenges improve their attention, seated attention, and behavior for participation in school learning tasks.


These interventions emphasize child-focused activities that optimally challenge students to discover activities that will enable them to modulate dysfunctional arousal levels for improved school functioning. Sensory processing interventions promote attachment relationships combining child-directed activities at their optimal level of challenge with an attitude of PACE (playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy). Offered respectfully with choices to decline, firm pressure touch strategies can enhance attachment, relationships, and self-control in students with behavioral and developmental trauma challenges. Attached is a link showing integrated use of behavioral, sensory processing, PACE, and FAB Pressure Touch strategies. While this treatment was done with a preschooler who had Asperger’s syndrome, a similar approach is often also helpful for students with behavioral and developmental trauma challenges https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8fMdJ6l0AM


Beider, S., Mahrer, N. E., Gold, J. I. (2007). Pediatric massage therapy: An overview for clinicians. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 54(6), 1025-1041.

Engel-Yeger, B., Palgy-Levin, D., & Lev-Wiesel, R. (2013). The Sensory Profile of People With Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 29(3), 266-278.

Hanson, J. L., Chung, M. K., Avants, B. B., Shirtcliff, E. A., Gee, J. C., Davidson, R. J., & Pollak, S. D. (2010). Early stress is associated with alterations in the orbitofrontal cortex: a tensor-based morphometry investigation of brain structure and behavioral risk. The Journal of neuroscience30(22), 7466-7472.


Hughes, D. A. (2011). Attachment-focused family therapy workbook. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.

Warner, E., Koomar, J., Lary, B., & Cook, A. (2013). Can the body change the score? Application of sensory modulation principles in the treatment of traumatized adolescents in residential settings. Journal of Family Violence, 28(7), 729-738.


Brain Based Emotion Regulation Strategies

Brain based therapy applies current neuropsychology to developing emotion regulation strategies. Emotion regulation involves learning to non-aggressively express strong feelings. People initially process anger and other negative emotions unconsciously in the right cerebral hemisphere, but require cross-hemispheric communication involving the left cerebral hemisphere for conscious awareness, verbal expression and emotion regulation (Riggs et al., 2006; Shobe, 2014). The Switch hands toss, ball bouncing, and drumming strategies were developed to help link movement activities with the verbal expression of feelings.

Research suggests that communicating negative feelings between the brain hemispheres for emotion regulation can be particularly difficult for students with complex behavioral disorders, including diagnoses of Autism Spectrum (Anderson et al., 2010) and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Pechtel & Pizzagalli, 2011), who have significantly reduced neurological communication between the cerebral hemispheres. Many of these students, as well as those with ADHD or neurological immaturity, also resist remaining seated and discussing their feelings and behaviors. Because expressing feelings is difficult for students with complex behavioral challenges, they tend to avoid practicing it.

The Switch hands toss, ball bouncing, and drumming strategies were developed to use movement games to promote the verbal expression of feelings in students with complex behavioral challenges. The Switch hands toss strategies combine passing a beanbag with the verbal expression of preferences, feelings, values, and choices. The ball bouncing and drumming strategy similarly combine two hand sequential activities with the verbal expression of feelings. Building on Positive Behavioral Support activities that teach emotions and express feelings, the switch hands toss, ball bouncing, and drumming strategies are fun interactive tasks that can be done individually with students and in groups. Both the movement and expression of feeling are developmentally individualized to improve emotion regulation and verbal skills.


Current brain research suggests that most students initially process anger and other negative emotions unconsciously in the right cerebral hemisphere, but require cross-hemispheric communication involving the left cerebral hemisphere for conscious awareness, verbal expression and emotion regulation (Riggs et al., 2006; Shobe, 2014). This can be particularly challenging for students with complex behavioral challenges. Research indicates significantly greater difficulties with neurological communication between the left and right cerebral hemispheres in students with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  The picture below shows the corpus callosum (marked as number 1 in black) a major network of nerves connecting the cerebral hemispheres.


The switch hands toss, ball bouncing, and drumming strategies combine sequential two handed movement activities with the expression of feelings. These strategies combine movement with the verbal expression of feelings to promote functional communication between both cerebral hemispheres. The switch hands toss, ball bouncing, and drumming strategies are easily graded by matching the specific movement and verbal expression to the student or group’s level.

The switch hands toss, ball bouncing, and drumming strategies address the verbal expression of: favorites (e.g., color, team, quality in a friend), best coping strategy, guessing the feeling or degree of feeling expressed by the therapist or peers, right now I feel _____, and I messages (e.g., when you yell at me, I feel sad, so please speak to me politely). These strategies enable students to express their feelings with out needing to be seated or the center of attention. The switch hands toss, ball bouncing, and drumming strategies offer fun Positive Behavioral Support activities to improve emotional awareness and the verbal expression of feelings.


Anderson, J. S., Druzgal, T. J., Froehlich, A., DuBray, M. B., Lange, N., Alexander, A. L., & Lainhart, J. E. (2010). Decreased interhemispheric functional connectivity in autism. Cerebral cortex, 190.

Bengtsson, S.L., Nagy, Z., Skare, S., Forsman, L., Forssberg, H., Ullen, F. (2005). Extensive piano practicing has regionally specific effects on white matter development. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 1148-1150.

Miller, A. L., Rathus, J. H. & Linehan, M. M. (2007). Dialectical behavior therapy with suicidal adolescents. NY, NY: The Guilford Press.

Pechtel, P., & Pizzagalli, D. A. (2011). Effects of early life stress on cognitive and affective function: an integrated review of human literature. Psychopharmacology, 214(1), 55-70.

Riggs, N. R., Greenberg, M. T., Kusche, C. A., Pentz, M. A. (2006). The mediational role of neurocognition in the behavioral outcomes of a social-emotional prevention program in elementary school students: Effects of the PATHS curriculum.   Prevention Science, 7(1), 91-102.

Shobe, E. R. (2014). Independent and collaborative contributions of the cerebral hemispheres to emotional processing. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8.

Sun, F. T., Miller, L. M., Rao, A. A., Esposito, M. D. (2007). Functional connectivity of cortical networks involved in bimanual motor sequence learning. Cerebral Cortex, 17(5), 1227-1234.