Mealtime Challenges in the School Setting: Therapeutic Processes and Practitioner Experiences

This study explored how school occupational therapy practitioners address mealtime challenges using a one-group, convergent mixed methods design.

Student name: Danielle Helminger OTD, OTR/L
Name of Mentor: Kimberly Hartmann Ph.D., OTR/L FAOTA
School: Quinnipiac University
Setting and location: North Haven Campus, CT
Virtual / In-person / Hybrid: In person presentation on 5/14/2022

Method/Design/Approach: Participants were school occupational therapy practitioners who service pre-K to 5th-grade students. Data were collected using an electronic survey (n=195) and semi-structured interviews (n=11) to gain an in-depth understanding of therapeutic processes and practitioner experiences regarding mealtime challenges.

Results/Outcomes: Survey results indicated that: 41% of practitioners evaluate mealtime using non-standardized methods like clinical observations (88%) and teacher interviews (78%). The most common mealtime interventions and outcomes reported by practitioners were self-feeding (73%) and independence with mealtime routines (37%). Interview themes revealed the informal processes practitioners use to address mealtime challenges and feelings of apprehension about supporting students with complex mealtime needs.

Conclusions: Formal documentation and more frequent coordination between parents, school staff, and community providers are target areas for improvement. The development of clear practice guidelines at the local, state, and national level are critical tasks to empower this change.

Ideas for next steps to build on this topic: More information is needed on the types of students who receive mealtime support in the school setting. Therefore, future research efforts should focus on how school practitioners address mealtime for specific diagnostic groups with known mealtime challenges such as students with autism, intellectual disability, or cerebral palsy. Phenomenological research to investigate parental experiences of sending a child to school with mealtime challenges would also be an invaluable perspective.

2-3 tips for students undertaking a similar project:

  1. Trust the process!
  2. You will make mistakes, it’s okay!
  3. Choose a topic you are passionate about.

You can see my presentation on Zoom starting at minute 54.